Russian strikes kill 14 civilians in eastern Syria

The air strikes targeted people fleeing across the Euphrates river and is the latest in a string of such incidents this week

A displaced Syrian woman from the city of Deir Ezzor caresses her son as they wait to get bread on the outskirts of Raqa on October 2, 2017. 
Syrian fighters backed by US special forces are battling to clear the last remaining Islamic State group jihadists holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqa. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

Russian air strikes killed 14 people fleeing across a river on rafts in eastern Syria as renewed fighting across the country took an ever mounting toll on civilians..

The strikes, the latest in a string of such incidents this week, targeted a group crossing the Euphrates near the jihadist-held town of Mayadeen, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors he Syrian war.

"They were crossing the river on makeshift rafts in a village south of Mayadeen," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said. Three children were among those killed overnight, he added.

Russia has in recent days intensified its air raids in support of Syrian regime forces battling jihadists across the country.

Mr Abdel Rahman said the civilians were fleeing the village of Mahkan, south of Mayadeen, which lies about 420 kilometres east of Damascus and is one of ISIL's main remaining bastions.

Mayadeen has been under ISIL control since 2014, when the group swept across swathes of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a "caliphate", but regime forces have tightened the noose around the town.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said government forces advancing from desert areas northwest of Mayadeen had moved to within five kilometres of the town.

In Deir Ezzor province, ISIL still controls Mayadeen, eastern neighbourhoods of the city of Deir Ezzor further up the Euphrates Valley, the town of Albu Kamal downstream on the Iraqi border, and several other smaller towns.

Moscow has been carrying out relentless air strikes in support of its ally Damascus, targeting both ISIL in Deir Ezzor province and rival jihadists led by Al Qaeda's former Syria affiliate in Idlib province in the northwest.

- Civilian deaths -

ISIL once controlled a territory roughly the size of Britain but  has seen its self-proclaimed "caliphate" shrink steadily over the past two years and has lost all but a few of its main hubs in both Iraq and Syria.

A Kurdish-led alliance is currently fighting ISIL in Raqqa, the group's biggest stronghold since Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Mosul in July.

The city, further up the Euphrates, was theISIL's self-declared Syrian capital in its now collapsing so-called "state".

On Wednesday, a Russian air strike killed 38 civilians trying to flee the fighting in Deir Ezzor province, according to the Observatory.

The Observatory relies on a network of sources inside Syria, and says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.

The group has reported hundreds of civilians killed in operations against ISIL in Deir Ezzor and neighbouring Raqqa province. On Tuesday, it said a US-led coalition strike in Raqa killed at least 18 civilians.

Russia has not acknowledged any civilian deaths from its strikes since it intervened in Syria in 2015, and dismisses the Observatory's reporting as biased.

On Thursday, the Red Cross said Syria was experiencing its worst levels of violence since the battle for second city Aleppo late last year.

"For the past two weeks, we have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties," said Marianne Gasser, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Syria.