UPDATE 9:08 a.m. EDT FROM THE AP IN WASHINGTON:
A U.S. defense official tells The Associated Press that Russia has launched airstrikes in Syria.
The move follows a unanimous vote by Russian lawmakers to allow President Vladimir Putin to order airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the airstrikes publicly, said they were launched Wednesday near Homs.
Russia recently moved fighter aircraft to an air base south of the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. U.S. officials had said in recent days that the Russians were flying reconnaissance missions without dropping bombs to familiarize themselves within the area. That was taken as an indication that they were about to begin airstrikes.
MOSCOW — Russian lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to let President Vladimir Putin send Russian troops to Syria. The Kremlin sought to play down the decision, saying it will only use its air force there, not ground troops.
Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad, according to the constitution. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, discussed Putin’s request for the authorization behind closed doors Wednesday, cutting off its live web broadcast to hold a debate notable for its quickness.
Sergei Ivanov, chief of Putin’s administration, said in televised remarks after the discussion that the parliament voted unanimously to give the green light to Putin’s plea. The proposal does not need to go to another legislative body.
Ivanov insisted that Moscow is not going to send ground troops to Syria but will only use its air force “in order to support the government Syrian forces in their fight against the Islamic State” group.
Putin and other officials have said Russia was only providing weapons and training to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army to help it combat ISIS. Recent satellites images, however, have shown giant Russian military cargo planes in Syria, and Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to Syria.
Moscow has always been a top ally for Assad. The war in Syria against his regime, which began in 2011, has left at least 250,000 dead and forced millions to flee the country. It is also the driving force behind the record-breaking number of asylum-seekers fleeing to Europe this year.
Ivanov told reporters that Russia decided to help Assad in order to protect its own country from Islamist militants, not because of “some foreign policy goals or ambitions that our Western partners often accuse us of.”
Putin’s troop request comes after his meeting Monday with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, where the two discussed Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria.