Beirut (AFP) – Syrian troops counterattacked against the Islamic State group around a key eastern airbase Sunday after a US-led coalition air strike killed scores of soldiers forcing a retreat, military sources said.
The Pentagon said that coalition pilots had believed they were hitting IS and had halted the raid as soon as Damascus ally Moscow informed commanders that army positions were coming under attack.
But 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 on Sunday.
“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 on Saturday.
“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 on Saturday.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, voiced regret for the loss of life.
“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,” she said.
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.
U.S. Airstrike Kills Dozens of Syrian Troops During Cease Fire — Russia Says The White House is Defending Islamic State, Prompting an Emergency U.N. Security Council Meeting and “Regret” From the U.S.
U.S.-led forces strike Syrian troops, prompting emergency U.N. meeting
U.S.-led coalition air strikes reportedly killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday, endangering a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire and prompting an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting as tensions between Moscow and Washington escalated.
The United States military said the coalition stopped the attacks 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 hit.
The United States relayed its “regret” through the Russian government for what it described as the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces in the strike, a senior Obama administration official said in an emailed statement.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in an emailed statement that Russian officials did not voice concerns earlier on Saturday when informed that coalition aircraft would be operating in the strike area.
The 15-member Security Council met on Saturday night after Russia demanded an emergency session to discuss the incident and accused the United States of jeopardizing the Syria deal.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, chastised Russia for the move.
“Russia really needs to stop the cheap point scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something we negotiated in good faith with them,” Power told reporters.
She said the United States was investigating the air strikes and “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.”
When asked if the incident spelled the end of the Syria deal between Moscow and Washington, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: “This is a very big question mark.”
“I would be very interested to see how Washington is going to react. If what Ambassador Power has done today is any indication of their possible reaction then we are in serious trouble,” Churkin told reporters.
Moscow cited the strikes, which allowed Islamic State fighters to briefly overrun a Syrian army position near Deir al-Zor airport, as evidence that the United States was helping the jihadist militants.
“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.
Power said Zakharova should be embarrassed by that claim. Churkin said Russia had no “specific evidence” of the United States colluding with Islamic State militants.
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