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Politics Canadian, Russian officials set aside differences to talk counter-terrorism

The Canadian government hosted talks with counter-terrorism officials from Russia this week despite persistent tensions between the two countries.

The discussions were held Thursday in Ottawa, the first such meeting in years after Canada suspended much of its contact with the Russian government because of the latter country's actions in Ukraine.

Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Natasha Nystrom described the meeting as "an exchange of perspectives" between senior counter-terrorism officials from both countries.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the fight against terrorism a priority for his country, which saw 16 people killed when a suicide bomber struck the St. Petersburg subway system in April.

A group with links to al-Qaida claimed responsibility.

The Russian leader has also asked for closer co-operation between his country and the West in fighting terrorists, most recently in the wake of the deadly London Bridge stabbing earlier this month.

Nystrom played down any significance to Thursday's meeting, saying Canadian officials "regularly engage with other governments, including Russia, about how to combat global terrorism.

"Our engagement with Russia is focused on Canada's national interests," she added, "be they in the Arctic, counter-terrorism, or other international security issues."

Russia and Canada share concerns about the threat posed by terrorists on many fronts, not least when it comes to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Moscow reported Friday that it was investigating whether one of its airstrikes in Syria had killed the reclusive leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump also agreed during a telephone call in May to work more closely in the fight against terrorism.

One Russian official, speaking on background because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly, described Thursday's meetings as a positive development in his country's ties with Canada.

There have been allegations that Putin's call for closer co-operation in the fight against terrorism is intended to divert attention away from Russia's actions in Eastern Europe and other places.

But former Canadian diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove said terrorism is a real concern for Russia given its proximity to such hot spots as the Middle East and Asia, and that Canada could learn a lot from it.

"The Russians have a lot of expertise," said de Kerckhove, who now teaches international affairs at the University of Ottawa. "We may not like their methods, but there is a lot they can teach us."

There are key areas in the fight against terrorism where the Canada and Russia are at odds with each other – none of which is more evident than in Syria.

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Russia has been actively supporting President Bashar al-Assad in what the Kremlin describes as the Syrian dictator's campaign against terrorism.

But Canada and other western countries have alleged that Russia is protecting Assad while his regime launches indiscriminate attacks against civilians, not terrorists.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went so far as to suggest that Russia was partly to blame after the Assad regime used chemical weapons in an attack against a town in April, killing dozens of people.

Russian and Syrian officials blamed rebel groups, which they have labelled terrorists, for the attacks.

de Kerckhove acknowledged that there are areas of disagreement between Canada and Russia when it comes to terrorism, especially in Syria.

But he emphasized the advantages of talking to each, especially given shared concerns that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's defeat in the Middle East will see extremists return to their home countries.

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"How many (ISIL) people will be returning to their country under a different guise?" de Kerckhove said. "How can we co-operate and ensure their identities. And I think that's a valid discussion."

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