33 die in US-led Syria strike as coalition meets


AFP

BEIRUT — A U.S.-led coalition strike is reported to have killed 33 civilians in northern Syria ahead of a Wednesday meeting of top officials in Washington focused on defeating the Islamic State group. Rebels and jihadists pressed offensives inside the capital Damascus and the central province of Hama, just a day before new U.N.-brokered peace talks open in Geneva.

Years of diplomatic efforts have failed to end Syria’s raging six-year conflict, which began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

The war has killed more than 320,000 people, sparked a major refugee crisis, and dragged in world powers including the U.S.-led air coalition bombing Syria’s jihadists since 2014.

A reported coalition strike in the northern province of Raqa early Tuesday has killed 33 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The monitor said Wednesday that the strike hit a school being used as a temporary shelter for displaced families, about 30 kilometers west of IS-held Raqa city.

“We can now confirm that 33 people were killed, and they were displaced civilians from Raqa, Aleppo and Homs,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“They’re still pulling bodies out of the rubble until now. Only two people were pulled out alive,” Abdel Rahman told AFP. Damascus Air Raids “Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” an activist group that publishes news from IS-held territory in Syria, blamed the coalition for the strike.

“The school that was targeted hosts nearly 50 displaced families,” it said.

The U.S.-led coalition is backing twin offensives to defeat IS in Raqa — the Syrian heart of the group’s so-called “Islamic caliphate” — and Mosul in neighboring Iraq.

Top officials from the 68-nation alliance are set to meet in Washington to hear more about a revised plan drafted by the Pentagon and presented to U.S. President Donald Trump in February.

Earlier this month, the coalition said its campaign in Syria and Iraq had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians, but monitors say the real number is far higher.

In addition to bombing raids by the coalition, Russia is carrying out strikes in support of its ally Assad and Turkey has provided air cover for rebel groups in the north.

Control of war-ravaged Syria is divided between myriad armed groups — rebels, jihadists, Kurdish militia and Syrian government forces.