Strikes on Islamic State-held city in Syria kill at least 20

AP LogoBy Philip Issa—

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists said airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group’s de factor capital of Raqqa on Thursday killed at least 20 civilians in a new round of bombardment that came as Turkey called on Russia to carry out joint operations against IS.

The offer by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu followed a meeting between the Russian and Turkish leaders in which they agreed to mend ties.

Cavusoglu also announced that his country will resume its airstrikes against IS targets in Syria, months after they were suspended amid a major row with Moscow. He said in an interview with Turkey’s private NTV television that Ankara “will again, in an active manner, with its planes take part in operations” against IS targets.

Turkey had temporarily suspended its limited participation in the airstrikes campaign by the U.S.-led coalition, following soured relations with Moscow after Turkish air force jets downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border in November. Russia had retaliated by deploying long-range air defense missile systems to its base in Syria, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey and imposing an array of economic sanctions.

Lt.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian Military General Staff speaks to the media, as a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a Russian warplane unloads its weapons over target on screen at a Russian Defense Ministry building in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. Rudskoi said that fighting in Aleppo will cease for three hours daily to allow humanitarian aid deliveries. Photo by Ivan Sekretarev.

Lt.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian Military General Staff speaks to the media, as a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a Russian warplane unloads its weapons over target on screen at a Russian Defense Ministry building in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. Rudskoi said that fighting in Aleppo will cease for three hours daily to allow humanitarian aid deliveries.
Photo by Ivan Sekretarev.

“On the issue of Daesh, we have made a call to Russia. We said we have a common enemy which we can struggle against together,” he said. Daesh is an Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State group.

Also Thursday, Syrian activists reported that at least 20 civilians were killed in airstrikes on Raqqa, the IS de facto capital in northern Syria.

The local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said the strikes also cut the city’s water supply. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the airstrikes, saying that 24 civilians were killed, along with six others whose affiliation or identities could not yet be confirmed.

Both groups said the strikes were launched by Russian jets, though it was not clear how they made the determination.

Meanwhile, there was no letup in the embattled northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where Turkey and Russia are supporting opposing sides of the conflict and where residents and activists reported a chlorine gas attack.

A Syrian rescue worker and opposition activists said Thursday that a Syrian government airstrike on an opposition-held district in the embattled city killed at least two people in what was alleged to have been a chlorine gas attack. The attack late Wednesday on the city’s eastern Zabadieh neighborhood saw at least four barrel bombs dropped on the area, one of which purportedly released the chlorine gas.

A father recounted dramatic moments of gasping for breath and cowering with his family on the top floors of their apartment building as a choking gas filled the hallway.

A Syrian military official denied the allegations, saying militants had fabricated the news. The official based in Damascus, Syria spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give official statements.

The accusations came hours after the Russian military, which is fighting alongside Syrian government forces in the civil war, promised a daily, three-hour cease-fire for Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid in to besieged areas. Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military’s General Staff said the cease-fires will be observed from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. local time starting Thursday, in order to facilitate the distribution of aid.

However, there was no letup to the fighting in Aleppo, and residents of the opposition-held eastern part of the city reported near-constant fighter jet overflights on Thursday.

“I’m at home and I don’t dare to leave — the jets are not letting up,” Wissam Zarqa told the AP.

A senior U.N. humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, said the three-hour Russian offer of a daily truce in Aleppo “is really nothing. We need 48 hours.” Speaking in Geneva, he said that Russia has agreed to hold talks with U.N. officials to hammer out a “workable” plan for a humanitarian pause in Aleppo fighting.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Thursday that reports of possible chemical weapons use in Syria “are of great concern” and said it continues to examine any credible reports it received.

Khaled Harah, a first responder in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, said a government helicopter dropped four barrel bombs on the neighborhood of Zabadieh and that one of them released chlorine gas, leading to the deaths of a mother and her two children.

The report, which was posted online on Thursday, could not be independently verified and it was not clear how it was determined that chlorine gas was released.

The Observatory, which tracks the civil war in Syria, also reported that government barrel bombs struck the neighborhood. It had reports of two killed and several people suffering breathing difficulties — but made no mention of chlorine gas.

Abdelkafi al-Hamdu, a resident of Aleppo, said he saw two air strikes from his in-law’s balcony, about 30 meters (yards) away. He said the first blast released a gas he identified by the smell as chlorine, but the wind was blowing in the other direction, lessening the odor.

He took cover in the apartment but began experiencing severe difficulties breathing, so he took his wife and daughter with him and tried to leave the building. But the odor grew stronger as they descended the stairs, so they returned to the higher floors to wait out the effects. He spoke to the AP via a messaging service.

Accusations involving use of chlorine and other poisonous gases are not uncommon in Syria’s civil war, and both sides have denied using them while blaming the other for using it as a weapon of war. Last week, the Syrian government and the opposition traded accusations of using chlorine, also in Aleppo.

Chlorine gas is a crude weapon, fatal in high concentrations while in lower doses, it can damage lungs or cause severe breathing difficulties and other symptoms such as vomiting and nausea.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.


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