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US-led coalition expresses regret after it may have killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes

“If we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention.”

File photo.
File photo.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

THE US-LED coalition admitted it may have hit a Syrian army position yesterday as Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the air strikes it said killed at least 62 soldiers.

The strikes came with diplomatic tensions escalating between Moscow and Washington less than a week into a fragile ceasefire aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria’s five-year civil war.

American officials said the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) group 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 IS 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.

Washington said it was investigating the incident but dismissed Moscow’s call for an urgent Security Council meeting as a “stunt”.

“If we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention. And we of course regret the loss of life,” US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told journalists as the closed-door meeting got underway last night.

Power described Russia’s request for the meeting as a “stunt, replete with moralism and grandstanding,” saying Moscow should instead demand a meeting with the Syrian regime to press for peace.

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin returned by accusing the United States of violating agreements that it would not target Syrian positions.

Counterattack

Syrian troops counterattacked against the Islamic State group around a key eastern airbase after the airstrike.

Damascus reacted angrily to the deadly strike, which forced troops to pull back from two strategic hilltops overlooking the besieged airbase on the outskirts of the city of Deir Ezzor.

“The Syrian army has returned to the offensive,” a military source told AFP earlier today.

After the American raids, it withdrew from several positions but now it has gone back on the attack.

A second military source inside Deir Ezzor airbase said that troops had already regained some of the lost ground.

“The army has retaken most of its positions on Jabal Therdeh with Russian and Syrian air support,” the source said, referring to one of the two hills lost yesterday.

“The two countries’ air forces bombed the area around the airbase, neighbourhoods held by the jihadists and the road linking Deir Ezzor to Mayadeen,” an IS-held town 45 kilometres (30 miles) to the southeast, the source added.

Retaking the heights around the airbase is vital for the army as control of them would allow IS to fire on all aircraft trying to take off or land.

The airbase and adjacent government-held neighbourhoods of the Deir Ezzor city have been under siege since 2012 and have been dependent on resupply by air.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 jihadists were killed in Sunday’s counterattack by the army.

The Britain-based monitoring group said 90 soldiers were killed in Saturday’s air strike, sharply higher than the death toll of 62 given by Moscow yesterday.

Australia, which said it was one of several coalition countries whose aircraft took part, offered its “condolences to the families of any Syrian personnel killed or wounded.”

“While Syria remains a dynamic and complex operating environment, Australia would never intentionally target a known Syrian military unit or actively support Daesh (IS),” a statement from the military said on Sunday.

© AFP 2016

Read: Divorces and multiple marriages – the other issues in the Syrian civil war

Read: Russian army says US-led coalition has killed 60 Syrian soldiers in air strikes

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