33 die in air raid on shelter for displaced Syrians near Raqqa

Pentagon says the US is providing air and artillery support fo allied forces before the offensive on ISIL stronghold at Raqqa.

The destruction in Suran, a town in Hama province, central Syria, taken by rebel forces, on March 22, 2017 after a lightning offensive. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
Powered by automated translation

BEIRUT // The US-led coalition is investigating reports that an air raid it carried out struck a school being used as a centre for the displaced and killed at least 33 people near Raqqa.

US aircraft also ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allied forces behind ISIL lines on Wednesday to spearhead an assault on ISIL’s self-declared capital.

The Pentagon said the US military is providing air and artillery support to allied forces near a key town west of Raqqa, ahead of a major offensive against the jihadists.

The airlift was part of what Pentagon spokesman Eric Pohan described as a large, high-priority offensive to secure the area around Tabqa and the associated Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River.

“This is a significant strategic target,” said Pohan. If successful, the operation would “basically cut ISIL off” from the western approaches to Raqqa.

The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said their fighters seized four villages south of the Euphrates and cut the main artery between Raqqa and northwestern Syria.

US infantry were also airlifted into the area of operations and the Pentagon said US military advisers were on the ground in the Tabqa area to help coordinate the operation., No US troops were involved in front line fighting.

Tabqa lies 45 kilometres west of Raqqa. ISIL controls the town and a dam and military airfield nearby. It has a prison in the town where it holds high-profile hostages, as well as a training camp and headquarters.

The air raid struck the school in the village of Al Mansour, which is 26 kilometres from Raqqa and also under ISIL control.

Syrian activists said Wednesday that dozens of people were killed or missing The activist-run group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said some 50 families had been sheltering at the school in the northern Syrian village and that their fate was still unknown.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33 bodies had been pulled from the rubble. The two organisations rely on local contacts to smuggle news out of ISIL-held territory.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the air raid. Syrian Kurdish forces have been advancing on Raqqa under the cover of US-led coalition air strikes and are now 8 kilometres north of the city. Syrian and Russian aircraft have also carried out strikes against the IS group.

Elsewhere in Syria, insurgents advanced on government-held towns and positions north of the central city of Hama. An Al Qaeda-linked group spearheaded the assault by detonating a car bomb in the nearby town of Souran.

The activist-run Hama Media Center said the rebels had reached the village of Khatab, 10 kilometres north-west of government-held Hama. State media reported fighting on the outskirts of the village and Souran.

The offensive coincides with a concentrated effort by opposition forces to breach government lines in the eastern neighbourhoods of the capital, Damascus. That operation is also spearheaded by the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.

In Damascus, the rebels were pinned down in industrial zones in the city’s east. Government air strikes and artillery fire echoed through the capital, and smoke could be seen rising above the opposition-held Jobar neighbourhood. Residents close to the front lines on the government side were seen leaving their buildings with whatever belongings they could pack in suitcases.

* Associated Press