Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, as Russia-backed government troops press their assault against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in the country's east.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on September 12 that Shoigu and Assad discussed military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus as well as the countries' joint efforts to defeat IS in Syria, according to Russian news agencies.
The meeting focused on plans to recapture the eastern city Deir al-Zor from IS militants and to "strengthen efforts to combat terrorism in all Syrian territory until its utter annihilation," Assad's office said.
Russia, along with Iran, has backed Assad in Syria's 6-year civil war against Syrian rebels and the fight against IS militants.
Syrian government forces and allied Shi'ite militiamen last week reached the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor Province, an oil-rich area bordering Iraq, breaking an IS siege of a government-held pocket.
However, IS still holds half of Deir al-Zor city and large swaths of the province, as well as parts of Raqqa Province to the northwest where a U.S.-backed offensive by Kurdish and Arab fighters is being fought.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted Aleksandr Lapin, chief of staff of the Russian military contingent in Syria, as saying on September 12 that "the liberation of [Deir al-Zor] city is proceeding."
Lapin also said that the Syrian Army won back 85 percent of the country, but the assertion was dismissed by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said the government held 48 percent of Syrian territory.
The observatory also said that suspected Russian air strikes have killed 69 civilians and injured dozens of others in the past three days in the province of Deir al-Zor.
It said the strikes hit civilian encampments at a river crossing on the western bank of the Euphrates as well as ferries in the river itself.
Reuters news agency reported that the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Syrian authorities say IS fighters are using Euphrates River crossings to flee the city of Deir al-Zor as troops press their assault against the militants.
The observatory has also reported civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led coalition warplanes, including 12 members of a single family in a village on the eastern bank of the Euphrates on September 12.