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Syria truce endangered after US-led airstrike kills 62 troops

  • Published at 12:58 am September 19th, 2016
  • Last updated at 12:55 pm September 19th, 2016
Syria truce endangered after US-led airstrike kills 62 troops

Syria’s ceasefire was hanging by a thread on Sunday, after tensions escalated between Moscow and Washington over a US-led coalition air strike that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers battling jihadists.

The truce saw violence drop across Syria for several days after it came into force Monday, but fighting has since erupted on several fronts and besieged civilians are still waiting desperately for promised aid deliveries.

The ceasefire’s co-sponsors, Russia and the United States, have traded accusations over the fraying deal, with relations strained even further after the US-led raid killed scores of Syrian soldiers on Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 soldiers were killed in the strike. Damascus ally Moscow put the death toll at 62.

The Syrian army said the raid had allowed Islamic State group fighters to gain ground around the key eastern airbase of Deir Ezzor, but a military source said government forces were back on the offensive Sunday.

“The army has retaken most of its positions on Jabal Therdeh with Russian and Syrian air support,” the source said, referring to a hilltop overlooking the base.

Retaking them is vital to prevent IS using them to fire on army aircraft taking off from or landing there.

On Sunday, IS said it shot down a Syrian warplane near Deir Ezzor. Syrian state news agency Sana confirmed a plane had been shot down there and its pilot killed, but did not say who was responsible.

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

How the Americans explained the attack

US Central Command said the coalition believed it was attacking positions of so-called Islamic State and the raids were “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”. It said the “Combined Air Operations Centre had earlier informed Russian counterparts of the upcoming strike”.

The strike and circumstances surrounding it will be reviewed it said, “to see if any lessons can be learned”.

Australian aircraft also took part in the bombing. Its Department of Defence offered its condolences to the families of government soldiers killed or wounded.

Response to the US account

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman has been quoted as saying that the attack showed “that the White House is defending Islamic State”. Syria’s foreign ministry said it was “planned and deliberate” and suggested “pre-coordination between IS and the US forces”.

Syrian forces have now regained control of the areas they lost to IS fighters as a result of the strikes, state news agency Sana reports. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reported the strikes had killed at least 90 soldiers.

Shaky truce

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.

The UN told Reuters aid trucks which had been expected to move to Aleppo on Sunday morning, were once again being delayed.

“Obviously the humanitarian community is very frustrated by this. We have hoped to go today with the convoys,” David Swanson, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “We stand ready to begin the response effort as soon as we get the green light.”

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 attack, 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 informed 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 (US) State Department - will not hold out,” a senior rebel official in Aleppo said, pointing to the continued presence of a UN 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.

Sources: Reuters, AFP, BBC

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