Airstrikes kill 39 civilians in ISIS bastion in Syria

Friday 18/03/2016
On Saturday alone, Palmyra was hit by at least 70 strikes

BEIRUT - Air strikes killed at least 39 civilians on Saturday in Raqa, the Islamic State group's main stronghold in Syria, a monitoring group said.

At least five children and seven women were among the dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The raids came a day after 16 civilians were killed in strikes on the same city.

"We cannot know whether the latest strikes on Raqa are by Syrian or Russian warplanes," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"What is clear is that their goal is to try to paralyse ISIS and to stop it from deploying reinforcements from Raqa to the Palmyra area," he said.

ISIS seized Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Pearl of the Desert", last May.

In recent weeks, Syrian troops backed by the Russian air force have been pressing an advance to try to reclaim the ancient city.

On Saturday alone, Palmyra was hit by at least 70 strikes, the Observatory said.

Russia, a key backer of the Syrian regime, on Monday ordered the withdrawal of most of its armed forces from Syria, but continues to strike jihadist targets, particularly around Palmyra.

Russia did carry out air strikes in Syria this week, a US military spokesman said Friday, hours after asserting the opposite.

"While we've seen no Russian air strikes in the northern areas of Syria this week, it appears the Russians have conducted some air strikes after all in southern Syria in the vicinity of Palmyra in support of the Syrian regime," US Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said.

Earlier, in a telephone briefing with reporters, Ryder had said that most if not all Russian warplanes have been withdrawn from Syria, adding that Russia has staged no air strikes during the past week.

That US military assessment contradicted assertions by the Russian military that its jets were flying as many as 25 sorties a day in support of a Syrian government offensive to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State (ISIS) group fighters.

Ryder said during the call earlier that some bombardments had taken place in the Palmyra region but that they were believed to have been fired by Russian artillery.

The spokesman said that what he briefed earlier in the day was the latest he had available at the time, adding that he received some updated information late in the afternoon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, where they have been backing Moscow's close ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The first Russian aircraft returned Tuesday to a hero's welcome.

"We assessed that the majority if not all of their strike aircraft have left," Ryder told reporters earlier.

The US military, which was taken by surprise by the development, has remained skeptical of Putin's intentions.

On Thursday, a Baghdad-based US military spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said there had been little change in Russian troop deployments on the ground.

There has been little movement of Russian ground forces, Ryder said earlier, adding that Moscow has kept combat helicopters and some transport planes in Syria.

Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war on September 30 at Assad's request, deploying about 50 combat aircraft.

It also sent more than 4,000 ground troops, artillery, tanks and about 30 combat helicopters.

The Russians have directed their operations mainly against Western-backed anti-government rebels while a US-led coalition has been waging an air campaign against the ISIS group.