PARIS — Six French jet fighters targeted and destroyed an Islamic State training camp in eastern Syria, President Francois Hollande said Sunday, making good on a promise to go after the group that the president has said is planning attacks against several countries, including France.
The airstrikes were the first in Syria by France as it expands its mission against IS.
“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.
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.”
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 U.S.-led 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 U.S.-led 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.
In New York, the French president said he would be meeting this week “all the partners” in the Syrian conflict.
“This political solution requires that all stakeholders are involved,” he said. “We are not excluding anyone.” He didn’t name countries.
At the same time, he said, “The future of Syria cannot be with Bashar al Assad.”
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.”
This report was written by Angela Charlton and Elaine Ganley of the Associated Press.