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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Monitors: US-led Coalition Jets Kill Dozens of Syrian Troops

By VOA News September 17, 2016

Syrian war monitors and Russian officials say U.S.-led coalition warplanes bombed Syrian army positions in the east of the country Saturday, killing as many as 80 government fighters who were battling Islamic State extremists for control of the area.

A statement from the U.S. Central Command said U.S. coalition aircraft struck near Deir Ezzor, believing they were targeting IS fighters that aircraft had been tracking "for a significant amount of time" before the strike.

The U.S. statement did not provide casualty figures. But it said "the airstrike was halted immediately, when coalition officials were informed by Russian authorities that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military."

The statement identified Deir Ezzor, about 100 kilometers west of the Iraq border, as an area targeted by coalition aircraft in previous operations. It also said coalition commanders had earlier informed Russian authorities about the planned strike.

'Stubborn refusal'

For its part, Russia's Defense Ministry described the coalition strike as evidence of Washington's "stubborn refusal" to coordinate its actions with Russian forces fighting alongside government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It remained unclear late Saturday how or whether the airstrikes would affect a cease-fire that took effect earlier this week.

The truce, aimed at halting military operations by Syrian forces, their Russian allies and U.S.-backed rebels seeking to oust the Assad government, was designed to clear the way for humanitarian aid to besieged areas of the war-torn country. Hundreds of thousands of civilians in those areas have been cut off from outside aid for months and are facing critical shortages of food and medicine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country was holding up its end of the cease-fire agreement, but he cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to the deal, saying Washington was deviating from its own call for openness.

"I don't really understand why we have to keep such an agreement closed," Putin said in a televised appearance on a trip to Kyrgyzstan. He also said Moscow would not unilaterally release the terms of the deal.

The Russian leader further criticized U.S. officials for their inability to separate the so-called healthy part of the opposition from what he called "the half-criminal and terrorist elements."

"This is a very dangerous route," he said.

Under a cease-fire agreement announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva a week ago, hostilities should have paused Monday (the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha).

U.S. and Russian military leaders were then set to coordinate airstrikes against Islamic State fighters and those of the extremist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the al-Nusra Front), which are not parties to the truce.

Officials in Washington and Moscow on Friday expressed a desire to extend the cease-fire pact and confirmed that aid deliveries had not yet begun. But they agreed on little else concerning the tenuous situation in Syria.

The White House indicated Friday that the next phase of the deal would not move forward until the aid was moving freely.

Resumption of clashes

Ahead of the coalition airstrikes at Deir Ezzor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intermittent shelling and clashes had resumed overnight on several fronts in Syria. In particular, fighting erupted between rebels and pro-government forces in the opposition-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, and airstrikes hit several towns in the central province of Homs.

Forty trucks carrying desperately needed relief for the divided city of Aleppo waited Friday at a checkpoint at the Turkish border, and the U.S. blamed the Syrian government for the holdup.

"Those trucks should be going in and that aid should be getting delivered with or without the arrangement that was arrived at in Geneva," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "It is the [Syrian] regime that is blocking the movement."

U.N. relief officials said conditions were not yet safe for the vehicles to cross into Syria.

"We know that there's at least a quarter of a million people in eastern Aleppo who are ... in need of some kind of aid," said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian office. "We are as ready to go as we can possibly be. ... It's highly frustrating. We know the whole world is watching."

A U.S. statement Friday said Kerry told Lavrov "about the repeated and unacceptable delays of humanitarian aid."

U.S. officials have voiced hope that the truce forged between the United States and Russia will clear the way for negotiations about a political transition in Syria.

But rebel leaders say they expect the cease-fire to collapse and do not believe Assad or his foreign backers, Russia and Iran, have any wish to negotiate a political settlement.

"The armed groups on the ground are still discussing what they should do about the cease-fire," General Salim Idris, former chief of the staff of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, told VOA.

Steve Herman contributed to this report from the State Department; Jamie Dettmer contributed from Gaziantep, Turkey.

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