France’s Hollande heads to Russia to press anti-ISIS coalition

Paris (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande will hold talks on Thursday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as part of his diplomatic marathon to forge a broad coalition against ISIS jihadists in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The French president met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Paris early Thursday and will later head to Moscow.

Hollande has been on a whirlwind tour seeking to build a coalition to crush ISIS in Iraq and Syria but has won few concrete pledges so far, and his campaign has been further complicated by a spat between Russia and Turkey over a downed jet.

Renzi offered only vague support for “a coalition of greater and greater strength that is up to the task of… the destruction of Daesh”, using another name for IS.

France invoked a clause requiring EU member states to provide military assistance after the November 13 attacks in Paris, when 130 people lost their lives in a wave of killings by suicide bombers and gunmen claimed by ISIS.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday pledged to stand beside France after talks with Hollande, saying she would act “swiftly” to see how her country can help in the fight against terrorism.

The French and German leaders each laid a pink rose among the tributes of flowers and candles in Place de la Republique, the Paris square that has become a rallying point since the bloodshed.

In Berlin, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Germany would send 650 soldiers to Mali to provide some relief to French forces fighting jihadists there.

Meanwhile in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron will set out the case for his country to extend its air strikes against ISIS from Iraq into Syria ahead of a vote by MPs next week.

The British premier has called ISIS a “direct threat to our security at home and abroad”.

– Hollande courts Russia –

He met Hollande on Monday and offered France the use of a British air base in Cyprus for flying missions against the jihadists.

While Cameron said he “firmly supported” the French leader, Hollande got a cooler response from US President Barack Obama, who is reluctant to intensify military action without a clear strategy or political track in place.

Hollande’s diplomatic efforts also suffered a blow after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on Tuesday.

Turkey’s military said the following day it did not know the jet was Russian and that it was ready for “all kinds of cooperation” with Russia, after Moscow called the incident a “planned provocation”.

The sole surviving pilot said he received no warning and the aircraft did not violate Turkish air space, but the Turkish military released audio recordings claiming to show the Russian jet was repeatedly warned to change course.

Moscow has intensified its strikes in Syria after ISIS claimed it brought down a Russian passenger plane over Egypt last month, killing all 224 people on board.

Russia carried out heavy raids in Syria’s northern Latakia province on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said, in the same area where Turkey downed the Russian bomber.

Ankara and Moscow have backed opposing forces in the four-year Syrian conflict, with Turkey supporting rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, while Russia is one of his last remaining allies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has backed the French president’s proposal to close off the Syria-Turkey border, considered the main crossing point for foreign fighters seeking to join ISIS.

“I think this is a good proposal and tomorrow President Hollande will talk to us in greater detail about it. We would be ready to seriously consider the necessary measures for this,” Lavrov said.

French jets on Monday launched their first air strikes from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament, which overwhelmingly supported intensifying the air campaign against ISIS, that “there is no alternative, we must annihilate Daesh”.

Meanwhile, the manhunt continued for two fugitives accused of taking part in the Paris attacks: Belgian-born Frenchman Salah Abdeslam and Belgian-Moroccan Mohamed Abrini.