PARIS (AP) — Six French jet fighters targeted and destroyed an Islamic State training camp in eastern Syria in a five-hour operation on Sunday, President Francois Hollande announced, making good on a promise to go after the group that he has said is planning attacks against several countries, including France.
The multiple airstrikes were the first in Syria by France as it expands its mission against IS, until now centered in Iraq.
“The camp was totally destroyed,” Hollande said Sunday after arriving at the United Nations, before the start of a major development summit and the U.N. General Assembly bringing together world leaders.
“We’re sure there were no casualties” among civilians, he added.
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The French president’s office announced the strikes, without details, in a statement hours earlier.
“Our nation will strike each time our national security is at stake,” the statement said.
Hollande told reporters the strikes on the training camp, and others to come, were aimed at “protecting our territory, cutting short terrorist actions, acting in legitimate defense.”
However, the limited strikes will likely have but a limited effect. The U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out regular airstrikes that punish but have failed to decimate IS, which controls large swaths of Syria.
Hollande’s decision to carry out targeted strikes on strategic IS sites is coupled with France’s bid to press for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Beyond military objectives, the strikes serve to bolster France’s position in helping to find a solution to a crisis that also includes Russia and Iran.
“France is talking with everyone and excluding no one,” Hollande said at the U.N. While “all concerned parties” must be included, he also stressed that “the future of Syria cannot (include President) Bashar Assad.”
Sunday’s air raids on the IS training camp site in the Euphrates valley lasted about five hours, the Defense Ministry said, with fighter jets — five of them Delta-winged Rafales, taking off from Jordan and the Persian Gulf, the ministry said without naming the Gulf location.
Hollande said more strikes “could take place in the coming weeks if necessary.” The targets were identified in earlier French reconnaissance flights and with information provided by the coalition.
The president announced earlier this month a change in French strategy — expanding its airstrikes over Iraq into Syria.
France has carried out 215 airstrikes against IS extremists in Iraq as part of the coalition since last year, the Defense Ministry said earlier this month. But it previously held back on engaging in Syria, citing concern over playing into Assad’s hand and the need for such action to be covered by international law.
Officials now evoke “legitimate defense” as spelled out in the U.N. Charter to support strikes in Syria.
France has already been attacked by extremists claiming ties to IS. Hollande — who has ruled out sending ground troops into Syria — has cited “proof” of plans for attacks on France and the growing danger to Syrian civilians, with a large chunk of the population fleeing in a massive exodus.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France was going after IS “sanctuaries where those who want to hit France are trained.”
The goal of the strikes is to “slow, break, stop if possible the penetration of Daesh,” Gen. Vincent Desportes said on the iTele TV station, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Hollande stressed the importance of seeking a political solution for Syria.
“More than ever the urgency is putting in place a political transition,” including elements of the moderate opposition and Assad’s regime, the statement said.
The French government has insisted that while it is part of the U.S.-led coalition, France is deciding independently who and what to hit in Syria.
Hollande announced on Sept. 7 France’s intention to start airstrikes, days after the photo of a dead 3-year-old Syrian boy galvanized public concern about Syrian refugees fleeing to save their lives.
In his statement Sunday, Hollande said: “Civilian populations must be protected from all forms of violence, that of IS and other terrorist groups but also the murderous bombardments of Bashar Assad.”
Angela Charlton in Paris, and Cara Anna and Steven R. Hurst at United Nations, contributed to this report.