Strikes kill at least 14 near IS stronghold in Syria

U.S.-led coalition aircraft were believed to have struck the village of Matab before dawn on Thursday.
  • Last update: 9 March 2017 | 20:18

BEIRUT: At least 20 civilians, including some children, were killed in suspected U.S.-coalition airstrikes on a village east of the Islamic State group's de-facto capital in Syria, activists reported Thursday, as the militants come under mounting pressure by rival U.S.-backed and Russian-backed forces in northern Syria.

The report comes a day after Defense Department officials announced that the U.S. deployed 200 Marines into the region south of the Syrian-Turkish border, with heavy artillery guns to support partners the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their campaign for Raqqa, the IS capital.

The deployment reflects Washington's deeper involvement in Syria under the administration of President Donald Trump and thrusts the U.S. further into a difficult diplomatic entanglement.

The SDF, seen as the most dependable Syrian fighting force against IS, withdrew from areas near its bastion Manbij to make room for the Syrian military to deploy last week. Manbij lies 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of Raqqa.

"There is a clear coordination between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces," Syrian lawmaker Omar Osse told the AP Thursday.

But the Syrian government is a pariah to Western states, and Damascus has never approved the presence of their militaries on Syrian soil.

"Any presence of U.S. forces or other forces on the Syrian land, without coordination with the Syrian state, is considered a flagrant violation of the Syrian sovereignty," said Osse.

The Marine deployment also risks antagonizing U.S.-NATO ally Turkey. The SDF is led by the Kurdish PYD party, which Turkey says is a terrorist organization.

Also on Thursday, engineers restored two water pumping stations that feed water to the country's largest city, Aleppo, in territory captured by the Syrian government from IS militants this week, state media reported.

Water should reach the city within 24 hours of starting the pumps, according to Ahmad Shami, who used to work for the city's public water utility.

The engineer decided to work for the opposition's administration after rebels divided Aleppo in 2012, putting him at odds with the government. He was forced out of the city in December with the rest of the opposition on the heels of a devastating military campaign waged by the government. He spoke to the AP by text message.

Aleppo, once Syria's industrial capital, suffered for years from severe water shortages as the government and opposition fighters contested the city and the Islamic State group controlled its upstream source — the pumping stations at the town of Khafseh on the Euphrates River.

Residents in Aleppo have depended on wells and water deliveries arranged by the government, charities and the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.

UNICEF has been trucking water to Aleppo at a cost of around $20,000 to $25,000 per day since the militants turned off the Khafseh station on Jan. 14, the agency's Damascus office told the AP. It has rehabilitated or constructed 220 wells in the city since late 2015.

Imad al-Khal, 64, a resident of al-Aziziyeh neighborhood in Aleppo, told The Associated Press that municipal water hasn't reached his home in nine weeks. The water outage has affected 1.5 million to 2 million people, according to UNICEF.

Pro-government forces have been marching east of Aleppo in the direction of Raqqa since December. They recaptured Khafseh earlier this week.

On Thursday, government forces and their allies entered Jarrah airbase, 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Khafseh, for the first time since 2014, the Observatory and the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said.

The IS group commandeered several MiG warplanes when they captured the Jarrah air base in 2014. Days later, Syrian warplanes bombed the aircraft on the runway.

In the area east of Raqqa, RBSS reported at least 20 civilians were killed in airstrikes Wednesday night on Matab Village.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the strikes occurred before dawn Tuesday and killed 23 people, including eight children.

It was not possible to reconcile the two accounts — the Islamic State group maintains a tight grip on communications from its territory. The Observatory and RBSS get their information from closely guarded local contacts.

Russian and Syrian aircraft are not known to operate in the area, according to the Observatory. The group said U.S.-led coalition aircraft were believed to behind the attack.

The coalition did not confirm the strikes and there was no immediate indication which nation's aircraft were involved.

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