(Recasts with quotes from Obama, Hollande)
By Roberta Rampton and John Irish
WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande pressed Russia on Tuesday to focus its attacks in Syria on Islamic State militants after Turkey heightened tensions in the region by downing a Russian plane.
Obama and Hollande also urged Russia and Turkey not to let the situation escalate after Turkey, a NATO ally, said it shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border after it repeatedly violated Turkish air space.
Obama said the United States did not have enough information yet to form conclusions about the incident, but said similar confrontations could be avoided in the future if Russia stopped attacking “moderate” Syrian rebels who are battling forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“This points to a ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries,” Obama said.
If Russia directs its energies toward Islamic State forces, “some of those conflicts or potentials for mistakes or escalation are less likely to occur,” Obama said.
Russia is supporting Assad’s government. Western nations insist Assad needs to step down for peace to take hold in Syria.
U.S. officials said the Russian aircraft’s entry into Turkish air space lasted seconds. Russia condemned the Turkish action, vowing severe consequences.
“We must prevent an escalation. That would be extremely damaging,” Hollande said.
Obama said, “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its air space. I think it’s very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other, find out exactly what happened and take measures to discourage any kind of escalation.”
He said he expected to speak to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in the coming days.
Obama and Hollande spoke at a White House news conference as the French president visited Washington to coordinate a stepped-up military campaign against Islamic state following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
Hollande is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week as part of a series of talks to increase international pressure on Islamic State after the Paris attacks.
“I will ask President Putin, as I’ve done before ... that the strikes must be against Daesh (Islamic State), against terrorism,” Hollande said.
Hollande said France was coordinating with Russian ships in the eastern Mediterranean since the French Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier arrived in the region. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Megan Cassella; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Bill Trott and Will Dunham)