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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

US denies drone strike that killed Hizbollah fighters in Syria

US military says it was not operating in the area where the militants were reportedly killed

A fighter walks past a tank bearing a Hizbollah flag in eastern Syria on August 28, 2017. The US government issued new financial rewards for two Hizbollah leaders on Tuesday. Louai Beshara / AFP
A fighter walks past a tank bearing a Hizbollah flag in eastern Syria on August 28, 2017. The US government issued new financial rewards for two Hizbollah leaders on Tuesday. Louai Beshara / AFP

The US military on Tuesday continued to deny it had launched a drone strike that killed at least seven Hizbollah fighters to the east of the Syrian city of Homs.

Both the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star and Reuters reported the strike had killed Hizbollah fighters, adding that their sources did not provide the exact date of the attack. The Lebanese website Mulhak said the strike had been launched by an American drone, though did not provide further reporting or identify a source.

“I can confirm it was not a coalition strike – we’re not operating in that area,” said Col Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria. “Our fight is not with Hizbollah, it’s with ISIL.”

Al Manar, a Lebanese television station affiliated with Hizbollah, did not report on the incident, nor did the War Media Center, another Hizbollah-linked outlet. Hizbollah’s press office told The National it had no official comment nor information.

A more likely possibility was that the strike was launched by a Russian or Syrian aircraft, which have been operating in the area in support of the Syrian military and its militia affiliates, including Hizbollah.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s six-year-old civil war, says more than 1,400 Hizbollah fighters have been killed in the conflict, including about 30 in the last week, most in battles against ISIL.

It would not be the first friendly fire incident in the war against ISIL.

The US-led coalition has confirmed four friendly fire incidents in Syria and Iraq since 2015 that killed as many as 127 US-allied militia fighters and Syrian government forces. The monitoring group Airwars says it has received reports of more than 340 deaths from US-led coalition friendly fire in that same time as a result of “48 more claimed incidents, with varying levels of credibility”.

A Russian airstrike near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor on Sept 16 injured fighters from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces militia. American military advisors were also in the area but uninjured.

Col Dillon said Russian and American officials speak daily to ensure that their forces do not clash in Syria, even as they have moved closer to one another as they close in on ISIL-held areas in eastern Syria from different directions.

He said the last reports he had received of shelling from Syrian regime or pro regime elements near US-backed forces was on September 25.

That incident took place near the city of Deir Ezzor, where ISIL has continued to put up stiff resistance after the Syrian government’s forces made rapid gains at the beginning of last month on the city’s outskirts, breaking a years-long siege by ISIL against government forces in the city. On Tuesday, the Observatory reported that ISIL fighters were using drones on the eastern side of Deir Ezzor to strike at Syrian government fighters.

ISIL has also continued to fight in the city of Raqqa, the other major city in Syria where it still maintains a presence, even after announcements last month that the SDF had captured the last remaining areas under ISIL control there.

Syrian government troops were also engaged in battles on Tuesday with pockets of ISIL fighters in their last remaining strongholds in Hama and Homs provinces.

ISIL also struck in Damascus on Monday, claiming a trio of suicide bombings against a police station in the Midan neighborhood that killed at least 17. ISIL still remains in control of parts of southern Damascus, including much of the neighborhoods of Yarmouk and Hajjar Al Aswad.

The Syrian Observatory also reported this week that September had been the deadliest month of 2017 in Syria’s war, with 3055 people killed, nearly one third of them civilians. Of the 955 civilian deaths the Observatory reported, 395 were attributed to Russian and Syrian government airstrikes, and 282 were attributed to strikes by the US-led coalition.

*Additional reporting by Reuters

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