U.S.-led forces strike Syrian troops, Russia calls emergency U.N. meeting

*        By  <http://www.reuters.com/journalists/angus-mcdowall> Angus
McDowall and  <http://www.reuters.com/journalists/andrew-osborn> Andrew

U.S.-led coalition air strikes killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday,
Russia and a monitoring group said, putting a U.S.-Russian brokered
ceasefire in jeopardy and prompting Moscow to seek an emergency U.N.
Security Council meeting.

The United States military said the coalition stopped the air strike against
what it had believed to be Islamic State positions in northeast Syria after
Russia informed it that Syrian military personnel and vehicles may have been

A U.S. military official said he was "pretty sure" targets mistakenly hit in
the coalition strikes were Syrian forces.

Russia called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security
Council after the air strikes, which allowed Islamic State militants to
briefly overrun a Syrian army position near Deir al-Zor airport.

"We are reaching a really terrifying conclusion for the whole world: That
the White House is defending Islamic State. Now there can be no doubts about
that," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry
spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

She said the strikes threatened to undermine the ceasefire in Syria brokered
by Russia, which has been aiding Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the
civil war, and the United States, which has backed some rebel groups.

The Russian Defence Ministry said U.S. jets had killed more than 60 Syrian
soldiers in four air strikes by two F-16s and two A-10s coming from the
direction of Iraq. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group
with contacts across the country, cited a military source at Deir al-Zor
airport as saying that at least 80 Syrian soldiers had been killed.

The ceasefire, which took effect on Monday, is the most significant
peacemaking effort in Syria for months but has been undermined by repeated
accusations of violations on both sides and by a failure to bring
humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

As well as the U.S. and Russian involvement, Assad is supported by Iran and
Arab Shi'ite militias, while Sunni rebels seeking to unseat him are backed
by Turkey and Gulf Arab states.

All those warring parties are also sworn enemies of the Islamic State
jihadist group, whose territory extends along the Euphrates valley from the
Iraqi border, including around Deir al-Zor, up to land near Syria's frontier
with Turkey.

In its sixth year, the conflict has cost hundreds of thousands of lives,
displaced half of Syria's pre-war population, prompted a refugee crisis in
the Middle East and Europe and inspired a wave of jihadist attacks across
the world.

Syria's army said the strikes, which took place at around 5 p.m. (9 a.m. ET)
were "conclusive evidence" of U.S. support for Islamic State, calling them
"dangerous and blatant aggression".

The U.S. military said in its statement that Syria was a "complex situation"
but that "coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian
military unit".

Islamic State said via its Amaq news channel it had taken complete control
of Jebel Tharda, where the bombed position was located, which would have
allowed it to overlook government-held areas of Deir al-Zor.

The city's airport and some districts have been entirely surrounded by
Islamic State since last year, with the airport providing their only
external access.

However, Russia and Syrian state media said the Syrian army later recaptured
positions it lost. The Observatory monitoring group said at least 20 Islamic
State fighters were killed in heavy Russian air strikes during that

The incident threatens to undermine not only the ceasefire agreement, but
also proposed joint targeting by the United States and Russia of Islamic
State and some other jihadist groups across Syria.


Earlier on Saturday, Russia and Syrian rebels cast doubt over the prospects
for the increasingly shaky ceasefire, with Moscow saying the situation was
worsening and a senior insurgent warning that the truce "will not hold out".

While the ceasefire has reduced fighting, some violence has persisted across
Syria. Meanwhile, there has been little movement on promised aid deliveries
to besieged areas and both sides have accused the other of bad faith.

Russia's Defence Ministry said conditions in Syria were deteriorating,
adding that it believed the ceasefire had been breached 199 times by rebels
and saying the United States would be responsible if it were to collapse.

After the Deir al-Zor air strike, it said Moscow had told the United States
to rein in the Syrian opposition and make sure it did not launch a new
offensive, adding that it had told Washington about a concentration of
rebels north of Hama.

Insurgents say they only reluctantly accepted the initial deal, which they
believe is skewed against them, because it could relieve the dire
humanitarian situation in besieged areas they control, and blamed Russia for
undermining the truce.

"The truce, as we have warned, and we told the (U.S.) State Department -
will not hold out," a senior rebel official in Aleppo said, pointing to the
continued presence of a U.N. aid convoy at the Turkish border awaiting
permission to enter.

Rebels have also accused Russia of using the ceasefire to give the Syrian
army and allied Shi'ite militias a chance to regroup and deploy forces ready
for their own offensives.


Both sides have accused the other of being responsible for aid deliveries
being stuck far from Aleppo, where army and rebel forces were supposed to
pull back from the Castello Road which leads into besieged, insurgent-held
eastern districts.

Russia on Friday said the Syrian army had initially withdrawn but returned
to its positions after being fired on by rebels, who in turn say they saw no
sign of government forces ever leaving their positions.

"There is no change," said Zakariya Malahifji, an official for a rebel group
in Aleppo on Saturday, asked whether there had been any move by the army to
withdraw from positions along the road.

Syria's government said it was doing all that was necessary for the arrival
of aid to those in need it in all parts of the country, particularly to
eastern Aleppo.

Two convoys of aid for Aleppo have been waiting at the Turkish border for
days. The U.N. has said both sides in the war are to blame for the delay of
aid to Aleppo, where neither has yet withdrawn from the Castello Road into
the city.

The government said the road was being fired on by rebels, which they deny,
so it could not give convoys a guarantee of safety.

Senior U.N. officials have accused the government of not providing letters
to allow convoys to reach other besieged areas in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Katya Golubkova and Andrew
Osborn in Moscow, Olesya Astakhova in Bishkek, Phil Stewart and Patricia
Zengerle in Washington and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul Editing by Dominic




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