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U.S. says it may have struck Syrian troops while targeting IS

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Syrian President Bashar Assad, addressed a speech to the newly-elected parliament at the parliament building, in Damascus, Syria, in June 2016.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Russian President Vladimir Putin listened to a journalist’s question during a news conference after a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, former Soviet republics) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan today.

BEIRUT » The U.S. military said it may have unintentionally struck Syrian troops while carrying out a raid against the Islamic State group today, threatening an already fragile U.S. and Russian-brokered cease-fire that has largely held despite dozens of alleged violations on both sides.

It marks the first known direct American strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. The United Nations Security Council scheduled a closed emergency meeting for tonight at Russia’s request to discuss the airstrike.

U.S. Central Command said the strike was immediately halted “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 military said the deadly airstrike hit a base in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour that is surrounded by IS, allowing the extremists to advance and overrun Syrian army positions in the area. Russia’s military said it was told by the Syrian army that at least 62 soldiers were killed in the air raid and more than 100 wounded.

The apparently errant strike could deal a crushing blow to the fragile cease-fire that has largely held for five days despite dozens of alleged violations on both sides. The cease-fire, which does not apply to attacks on IS, has already been the subject of disputes between Moscow and Washington, with each accusing the other of failing to fully implement it.

“Coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit,” the U.S. military statement said.

The Syrian military said the airstrikes enabled an IS advance on a hill overlooking the air base. It called the strike a “serious and blatant attack on Syria and its military,” and “firm proof of the U.S. support of Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

A Syrian military spokesman told a briefing early Sunday that the U.S. airstrike destroyed three tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles, four mortars and an anti-aircraft gun, Russia’s TASS news agency reported. The unnamed spokesman said the IS advance on the base was stopped after Russian warplanes were called in to hit IS positions.

Russia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council and demanded “full and detailed explanations about whether this was deliberate support of the Islamic State or another mistake.”

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted by the state news agency TASS as saying that “after today’s attack on the Syrian army, we come to the terrible conclusion that the White House is defending the Islamic State.”

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said it sent an urgent message asking the Security Council to “condemn the U.S. aggression,” TASS reported, citing a statement released by Syria’s SANA news. The statement claimed five U.S. aircraft took part in the airstrike.

A senior Obama administration official said the United States has “relayed our regret” for the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces fighting the IS.

The official says the notification was sent through Russia. The official also saids the U.S. will continue to pursue compliance with the cessation of hostilities as it continues military action against IS and an al-Qaida-affiliated group. The official was not authorized to discuss the notification by name and requested anonymity.

A Russian Defense Ministry official said Syria has informed them that 62 of its soldiers were killed in the airstrike. Russia has been waging a year-old air campaign on behalf of Assad’s forces and closely coordinates with them.

Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the airstrike near Deir el-Zour airport, held by the government, was conducted by two F-16s and two A-10s. He did not identify the planes’ country affiliation, but said they were part of the international coalition. Konashenkov said the planes came from the direction of the Iraqi border, he added.

He added that if the coalition attack was launched by mistake, the reason for it was a “stubborn reluctance by the American side to coordinate its action against terrorist groups in Syria with Russia.”

IS has repeatedly attacked the government-held air base, which is an isolated enclave deep in extremist-held territory. The government controls the air base and parts of Deir el-Zour city, while IS controls the entire province by the same name. An IS advance in Deir el-Zour would endanger the lives of tens of thousands of civilians living in government-held areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian army later recaptured most of the positions it lost to IS.

The U.S.-led coalition has carried out thousands of airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq over the past two years, allowing allied forces on the ground to liberate several towns and cities from the extremist group. Russia also carries out attacks against IS targets, in Deir el-Zour and other parts of Syria.

“The coalition will review this strike and the circumstances surrounding it to see if any lessons can be learned,” the U.S Central Command statement said.

The cease-fire took effect on Monday, and despite reports of violations, it has largely held. However, aid convoys have been unable to enter rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo — a key component of the deal.

Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned the U.S. commitment to cease-fire, suggesting that Washington wasn’t prepared to break with “terrorist elements” battling Assad’s forces.

Russia has accused Washington of failing to rein in the rebels, and today Putin asked why the United States has insisted on not releasing a written copy of the agreement.

“This comes from the problems the U.S. is facing on the Syrian track — they still cannot separate the so-called healthy part of the opposition from the half-criminal and terrorist elements,” Putin said during a trip to Kyrgyzstan.

“In my opinion, this comes from the desire to keep the combat potential in fighting the legitimate government of Bashar Assad. But this is a very dangerous route.”

He appeared to be referring to the Fatah al-Sham Front, an al-Qaida-linked group previously known as the Nusra Front, which is deeply embedded in rebel-held areas and fights alongside more moderate groups. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the group, condemned the cease-fire agreement in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV aired today.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed Putin’s remarks during a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Lavrov noted the “refusal by an array of illegal armed groups to join the cease-fire,” and Washington’s obligation to “separate units of the moderate opposition from terrorist groupings,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

Under the cease-fire agreement, the U.S. and Russia would work together to target the Fatah al-Sham Front, as well as IS, while Assad’s forces refrain from striking opposition-held areas.

But Washington has warned Russia that unless aid is delivered to Aleppo, it will not move ahead with the formation of the joint coordination center.

The U.N. has accused Assad’s government of obstructing aid access to the contested city. The Russian military says insurgents have held up the delivery by firing on government positions along the main route leading into besieged, rebel-held districts, in violation of the cease-fire.

The Syrian government said it has done all that is necessary to facilitate the entry of aid convoys to Aleppo, but that armed groups have failed to withdraw from the supply routes and are committing “dangerous, provocative acts.”

Russia’s military said Syrian rebels violated the cease-fire dozens of times over the past day, including with strikes on military and civilian targets in Aleppo. Syrian activists said government forces killed five civilians in separate attacks today.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced half the country’s population since March 2011.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow and Joseph Krauss in Cairo contributed to this report.

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  • “Officials had been watching these forces “for a few days” thinking they were ISIS.”

    confirmation would have been nice. coordination would have been nice. communication would have been nice.

    but when you are the nobel peace prize winner and you don’t have a clear strategy of winning the war in syria you don’t need confirmation, coordination, or communications.

    • What did tha Nobel Peace Prize winner do to deserve that prize? What has that NPP winner accomplished (positive/good stuff) that benefitted a majority of Americans?

  • This is one of the reasons why the Obama administration should have taken steps, to take out ISIS when he had the chance. His Red Line threat was a huge mistake! And later? By doing nothing only imbolden ISIS to spread and to be where they are at Today. Had he Listened to his top Generals ,we would not be here dealing with this stuff!

    I don’t blame our brave military for this mishaps,thay are doing their BEST ! But during these kinds of crisis we will always tend see collateral damage during War! I Blame….. ISIS!

    • MoiLee, don’t we have a cease-fire in Syria? If it’s in place, I place the full blame on Hawaii’s born President Obama. He and only he approves such strikes. Putin must be pissed.

      • It would be too easy to place the Blame on Obama alone. here’s why…..ISIS knew that a Cease fire was in Place and took advantage of the situation. Yes I would imagine Putin would be Pissed.

    • “I Blame….. ISIS!” – sure on a broad overall basis. However, blaming ISIS for this U.S. airstrike is ridiculous. With all the sophisticated communications and surveillance electronics, the U.S. should find out who they are targeting before firing.

      “we will always tend see collateral damage during War” – probably. But, you and American reactions would be very different if the Russians or Syrians bombed U.S. forces and said what you said.

      • Lame excuse used to inflict damage to Assad’s forces. Simple to declare it was an mistake, much to the chagrin of Putin? He will propagandize that the Americans cannot be trusted. 1 up Putin, Obama 1 down. Nobel Peace Prize pre-maturely award by Norwegian Nobel Committee to wrong individual? Ask Snowden, he has all the secret files!

  • On June 16th, Russian planes bombed a military base in Syria being used by US and British forces. The media didn’t list any casualties, and reported the story on July 22nd. Why didn’t Obama go to the UN like Putin is doing now? Was it a mistake on bombing Syrian forces? No way. It was to even the score.

  • A popular saying by the allies in WWII. “When the Germans flew over, the British ran for cover; when the British flew over, the Germans ran for cover; when the Americans flew over, everyone ran for cover!!!!”

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