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Australia Halts Airstrikes In Syria After Russian Military Threat

Australia's military is suspending the airstrikes that it had been carrying out against the Islamic State as part of a U.S.-led coalition in Syria, one day after Russia criticized the U.S. downing of a Syrian warplane and threatened to target coalition aircraft in a wide swath of Syria.

On Monday, Russia's defense ministry effectively drew a line across Syria west of the Euphrates River, saying that "all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition ... will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets."

The threat came after a U.S. Navy fighter aircraft shot down a Syrian Air Force jet on Sunday, an act that the Pentagon explained as a defensive measure to protect U.S. allies who are pressuring Islamic State in its stronghold of Raqqa.

The Australian Defense Force's name for its effort to fight ISIS is Operation OKRA. Operating in both Syria and Iraq, the force includes about 780 personnel, including 300 service members who work in its air group. The force will continue normal operations in Iraq, reports Australia's News.com.

"In an email to NPR, Australia's Department of Defense says it will make a decision on rejoining the U.S-led air campaign in due course," NPR's Alison Meuse reports from Beirut.

The Russian military also said it would stop using the "deconfliction" channel that was established to avoid conflicts as coalition and Russian warplanes operated in Syria's airspace.

In another sign of increasing friction between the U.S.-led coalition and the force backing President Bashar Assad, a U.S. strike fighter shot down an unmanned "armed pro-regime" combat drone after it "displayed hostile intent" in southern Syria on Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

"This is the same location where another pro-regime UAV dropped munitions near Coalition forces before it was shot down, June 8," the U.S. military says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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