CBS News & BBC World News – 2017-03-22 23:20:52
Possible US Strike Allegedly Kills 33 Civilians in School
(March 22, 2017) — A London-based activist and monitoring group said Wednesday that a US-led coalition airstrike had hit a school in ISIS-held territory in northern Syria that was being used to shelter displaced families, killing dozens of civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which relies on an extensive network of contacts on the ground in Syria and which generally proves a reliable source of information on the war, said coalition aircraft “most likely” carried out the strike but did not explain how it reached that conclusion.
In a statement distributed later Wednesday, the US-led coalition said it had no evidence yet to back up the claim of a strike hitting civilians, but it acknowledged airstrikes in the vicinity ahead of a first-of-its-kind airdrop of rebel fighters by American helicopters.
The statement said the unprecedented ferry service for about 500 US-trained fighters “was preceded by synchronized Coalition fires throughout the area. I cannot say if the alleged civilian casualty was due to this, however, since we have conducted several strikes near Raqqa we will provide this information to our civilian casualty team for further investigation.”
The coalition has targeted ISIS militants and infrastructure in and around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa for months. It is the terror group’s last major urban stronghold in Syria and its self-declared capital.
US officials confirmed earlier Wednesday to CBS News‘ David Martin that American helicopters had airlifted some 500 Syrian fighters into an area west of Raqqa. It was the start of an operation intended to seize a major dam across the Euphrates River, at Tabqah, which is currently held by ISIS and is considered one of the few remaining ways of getting supplies and people in and out of Raqqa.
It was the first known instance of American helicopters ferrying Syrian fighters into battle. The Syrians were trained and equipped by US special operations forces, but the statement from the US-led coalition said no American advisers were accompanying the fighters on the ground.
The school that was destroyed by the airstrike is located between Raqqa and the Tabqah dam.
Russian aircraft have also carried out one or two strikes in the area in recent months, but have largely focused their attention elsewhere, targeting groups other than ISIS. Both US and Russian-backed factions on the ground are battling ISIS in an effort aimed at eventually retaking Raqqa.
The Wednesday strike reportedly hit a school in the town of Mansoura, about 15 miles southwest of central Raqqa.
“We can now confirm that 33 people were killed, and they were displaced civilians from Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs,” SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman told the French news agency AFP. They’re still pulling bodies out of the rubble until now. Only two people were pulled out alive.”
A second activist and monitoring group, “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” also reported the airstrike on the school, saying as many as 50 displaced families were being sheltered in the building.
ISIS is known to position its fighters and supplies near to, and even in the same buildings as civilians, in an effort to deter airstrikes. Activists said ISIS militants were at the scene of the strike on the school Wednesday within minutes, ushering people away from the building.
The reports about the strike in Mansoura come less than a month after the same monitoring groups said a US-led coalition aircraft had hit a village just east of Raqqa, killing at least 20 civilians.
About 200 US Marines deployed into Syria with heavy artillery in early March as part of preparations for the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa. Pentagon officials said that was a long-planned increase in presence, and not part of an anticipated ramping-up of operations against ISIS that President Trump and his senior military commanders are still hashing out.
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Strike on Raqqa School ‘Kills Displaced Civilians’
(March 22, 2017) — At least 33 people have been killed in an air strike on a school in a village west of the Islamic State-held Syrian city of Raqqa, a monitoring group says.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the building in al-Mansoura was being used as a shelter for displaced people when it was hit on Monday night.
The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said the fate of 50 families who were there was unknown.
Both groups believe the raid was carried out by US-led coalition jets.
The coalition said it had no indications that an air strike hit civilians but that it would investigate the reports of casualties, the Associated Press reported.
The coalition acknowledged that there were 19 strikes near Raqqa on Monday, including three that destroyed IS “headquarters”, and another 18 strikes on Tuesday.
The coalition is supporting an offensive by an alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters aimed at capturing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the IS “caliphate”.
As part of an operation to isolate the city, US helicopters airlifted Arab members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) behind IS lines on Wednesday in an attempt to take the Tabqa dam, about 45km (28 miles) to the west, the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Observatory, which is based in the UK, said one of its activists had witnessed 33 bodies being pulled out of the rubble of the al-Badiya school in al-Mansoura, about 26km (16 miles) west of Raqqa.
Two other people were found alive before IS militants arrived and told bystanders to leave, it added.
Residents of the village told the Syrian Observatory that displaced families from Raqqa, Homs and Aleppo provinces were living in the school.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that the school was completely levelled by the strike, and that the 50 families who were sheltering there were still unaccounted for on Wednesday morning.
The anti-IS group also reported that 20 civilians had been killed by coalition air strikes on the town of Tabqa on Tuesday.
The Syrian Observatory said the al-Mansoura air strike meant at least 116 civilians, including 18 children and 23 women, had been killed in suspected coalition air strikes in the past two weeks.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put the civilian death toll at 101, but did not appear to include any of those feared dead in al-Mansoura.
Earlier this month, the coalition said its air strikes in Syria and Iraq had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians since August 2014. However, human rights groups believe the true figure is likely far higher.
Airwars, an organisation that tracks allegations of civilian deaths, reports that at least 2,590 civilians are likely to have died.
Syrian government and Russian aircraft also carry out strikes in Raqqa province.
Later on Wednesday, new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opened the first meeting of the entire 68-member coalition since December 2014.
Mr Tillerson said the Trump administration was determined to “demolish and destroy” what he called a “barbaric terrorist organisation”.
Elsewhere in Syria on Wednesday, rebels and allied jihadists continued two surprise offensives inside the capital, Damascus, and north of the city of Hama.
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