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Sep 18, 2016

The Guardian | World Middle East | Syria: Australian Warplanes Took Part in Airstrikes that Killed Syrian Troops

theguardian.com
 
Julian Borger
 
Australia has said its warplanes took part in US-led airstrikes in eastern Syria that mistakenly killed Syrian army troops in an incident threatening to wreck an already tenuous ceasefire before it is a week old.

Russia’s military said it was told by the Syrian army that at least 62 soldiers were killed in the attack on a government position near Deir ez-Zour, with more than 100 wounded. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 soldiers were killed.
The first airstrikes on Aleppo since the ceasefire began on Monday evening were reported on Sunday.
An Australian defence department statement said its jets had targeted what had been thought to be Islamic State (Isis) fighters. “Overnight, coalition aircraft were conducting airstrikes in eastern Syria against what was believed to be a Daesh [Isis] fighting position that the coalition had been tracking for some time,” the statement said.
“However, shortly after the bombing commenced, Russian officials advised the Combined Air Operations Centre that the targets may have been Syrian military personnel.”
“While Syria remains a dynamic and complex operating environment, Australia would never intentionally target a known Syrian military unit or actively support Daesh,” the statement said, offering condolences to the families of the dead and pledging to cooperate with a US inquiry.
The US has also offered condolences and insisted that the airstrikes were a mistake. It said it had targeted Tharda mountain where a Syrian government offensive was seeking to capture Isis positions overlooking the Deir ez-Zour military airport.
Damascus claimed it had succeeded in taking Tharda despite the US bombing, and rejected Washington’s insistence that it had hit Syrian troops in error. A foreign ministry statement said that Syrian positions had been repeatedly attacked in strikes that were “on purpose and planned in advance”.
Russia has warned that the incident puts a “very big question mark” over the future of a precarious ceasefire agreed by Washington and Moscow, and a strongly worded foreign ministry statement on Sunday said that the strikes were “on the boundary between criminal negligence and direct connivance with Islamic State terrorists”.
It said the incident was a result of Washington’s “stubborn refusal” to cooperate with Moscow in fighting Isis, the Nusra Front – now renamed Jabhat Fateh al Sham – and “other terrorist groups”.
The Russian foreign ministry statement also described US explanations at an emergency UN security council session on Saturday night as an “an unconstructive and indistinct position”.
US officials “not only turned out to be unable to give an adequate explanation of what happened, but also tried, as is their custom, to turn everything upside down”, the statement said.
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said Russia’s call for a security council meeting was ‘cynical and hypocritical’. Photograph: Darren Ornitz/Reuters
The two nations clashed at the United Nations over the bombing when the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, described Russia’s call for an emergency closed-door security council meeting over the incident as “uniquely cynical and hypocritical”. She said Russia had for years blocked UN punitive measures against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for the barrel bombing of civilian populations in rebel-held cities.
“Since 2011, the Assad regime has been intentionally striking civilian targets with horrifying, predictable regularity ... And yet in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for a Saturday night emergency consultation in the security council,” she said.
After the meeting went ahead, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, declared that in his decades as a diplomat he had “never seen such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness as we are witnessing today”.
He said that if Power’s actions were any indication of Washington’s possible reaction then the ceasefire agreement is “in serious trouble” but expressed hope the US would convince Moscow it was serious about finding a political solution in Syria and about fighting terrorism.
Churkin said the timing of the US airstrikes was “frankly suspicious” as it came two days before the US and Russia were supposed under the ceasefire agreement to begin joint planning for air operations against Isis and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.