'Coalition raid' hits Syrian army as truce wavers

2016-09-17 22:55
(Picture: AFP)

(Picture: AFP)

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Beirut - Airstrikes blamed by Moscow and Damascus on the US-led coalition, hit a Syrian army position in the east on Saturday, killing dozens of soldiers, the Russian army and a monitor said.

American officials said the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) group in Syria may have hit Syrian military positions.

"Coalition forces believed they were striking a Daesh fighting position," a Pentagon statement said, using an Arabic acronym for the ISIS group.

"The coalition air strike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group gave a toll of at least 80 soldiers killed.

The situation in Syria is deteriorating, the Russian military said earlier, adding that the United States would be responsible if a fragile ceasefire in force since Monday collapses.

"Warplanes from the international anti-jihadist coalition carried out four air strikes today against Syrian forces surrounded by ISIS in the Deir Ezzor air base," a Russian army statement said.

"Sixty-two Syrian soldiers were killed and a hundred others were injured in these strikes."

The Russian military said two F-16 and two A-10 jets that flew into Syrian airspace from neighbouring Iraq carried out the 14:00 GMT attack.

"Straight after the coalition's strikes, ISIS militants launched an offensive," said the statement, adding that "fierce fighting against the terrorists" ensued nearby.

"If these strikes were due to an error in the target co-ordinates, that would be a direct consequence of the US' refusal to coordinate with Russia its fight against the terrorist groups in Syria," it said.

The ISIS-linked Amaq news agency said coalition strikes hit ISIS positions, but that the jihadist group was able to "seize full control of Jabal Therdeh, which overlooks the Deir Ezzor airport".

Syria's army has been fighting off a fierce ISIS offensive on the Deir Ezzor military airbase since last year.

A Syrian military source inside the Deir Ezzor airport told AFP US-led coalition strikes hit two hilltops near the airport.

The Britain-based Observatory said at least 83 soldiers were killed, but could not specify who carried out the raids.

'Situation worsening' 

"This is a dangerous and bold attack against the Syrian state and army, and clear evidence that the United States and its allies support the terrorist group Daesh," the army statement reported by the SANA official news agency said, referring to ISIS.

"The situation in Syria is worsening," Russian General Vladimir Savchenko said in a televised briefing earlier.

"In the past 24 hours, the number of attacks have risen sharply," with 55 attacks on government positions and civilians, killing 12 civilians.

Russian military officials lashed out at the United States in the strongest language yet over the ceasefire struck last week in Geneva, a last-ditch effort to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

The ceasefire has so far lasted five days.

Under the US-Russia deal, if the truce lasts seven days and humanitarian access is granted, Moscow and Washington are to work together to target jihadists including ISIS.

"If the American side does not take the necessary measures to carry out its obligations... a breakdown of the ceasefire will be on the United States," army general Viktor Poznikhir said during the televised briefing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Syrian rebels of using the ceasefire to regroup, as diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Washington simmered over a lack of humanitarian aid access.

In New York, the UN Security Council cancelled an urgent meeting that had been called to discuss whether to endorse the ceasefire, billed as the "last chance" to end the five-year war that has killed 300 000 people.

Friday's closed-door consultations were scrapped after Moscow and Washington failed to agree over disclosing details of the ceasefire to the council.

Extending the truce

Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said on Saturday he remained "positive" about the truce, but accused rebels of "attempts to regroup".

Putin said Washington apparently "has the desire to keep the capabilities to fight the lawful government of President Assad", calling it a "very dangerous path".

Moscow said on Friday that it was ready to prolong the truce by 72 hours, but there has been no formal announcement of an extension.

Implementing the truce has been complicated by the presence of jihadists not covered by the ceasefire and mainstream rebels on some of the same frontlines.

A challenge for Washington is to persuade opposition groups it backs to separate themselves from the former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, previously called Al-Nusra Front.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday and was urged to press the rebels for safe passage guarantees, the Russian foreign ministry said.

A key plank of the truce deal was the delivery of aid to areas including Aleppo, where an estimated 250 000 people in rebel-held areas of the city are living under government siege.

But 40 trucks carrying desperately needed food aid were still stuck on the border with Turkey on Saturday.

Read more on:    us  |  russia  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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