AKROTIRI, Cyprus/LONDON British bombers made their first strikes on Islamic State in Syria on Thursday, hitting oil fields that Prime Minister David Cameron says are being used to fund attacks on the West.
Tornado bombers took off from the RAF Akrotiri air base in Cyprus just hours after British lawmakers voted 397-223 to support Cameron's plan for air strikes, a Reuters witness said. They returned to base safely several hours later.
The four bombers used laser-guided bombs to attack six targets in the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria controlled by the Islamist militant group which British officials call Daesh, using an Arabic acronym that the group rejects.
"That strikes a very real blow at the oil and the revenue on which the Daesh terrorists depend," Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC.
"There are plenty more of these targets throughout eastern, northern Syria which we hope to be striking in the next few days and weeks," Fallon said. He said Britain was sending eight more warplanes to Cyprus to join the missions.
There was no immediate information about casualties.
The British contribution still forms only a tiny part of U.S.-led "Operation Inherent Resolve", which has been bombing Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria for more than a year with hundreds of aircraft. Previously, the small British contingent participated in strikes on Iraq but not Syria.
But although the British vote adds little additional military capability to the coalition, it has had outsized political and diplomatic significance since last month's attacks in Paris, as Europe's other leading military power wrestled with a decision to join France in expanding its military action.
After 15 years in which hundreds of British troops died serving as the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in Britain are wary of more war in the Middle East.
The decision to extend bombing to Syria divided the opposition Labour Party, opposed by its leader Jeremy Corbyn but supported by its foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn in a passionate speech in parliament.
Russia is also bombing Syria outside the U.S.-led coalition. Moscow supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and its allies oppose him.
Cameron said the more than 4-year-old Syrian civil war could not be resolved by military action alone, but that the strikes would "degrade" Islamic State, a militant Islamist group which has declared a caliphate in large parts of Iraq and Syria.
"It is in Syria where they pump and sell the oil that does so much to help finance its evil acts," Cameron told parliament on Wednesday ahead of the vote.
STEPPING BACK FROM THE WORLD
Cameron has been criticized for stepping back from the world since he took the top job in 2010, particularly after he lost a 2013 vote in parliament on military action against Assad's government. The vote on Thursday for military action gives him a chance to restore some of Britain's global clout.
The news of the vote was met by howls of disgust by dozens of anti-war protesters demonstrating outside parliament.
But the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and were claimed by Islamic State have stiffened the resolve of many lawmakers. Just under a third of Labour members of parliament defied leftwing leader Corbyn to vote for military action.
"We must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria," Benn said in his impassioned speech, which drew applause from lawmakers across the House of Commons.
(Additional reporting by Limei Hoang; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)