Rus­sian navy fires cruise mis­siles into Syria

The Prince George Citizen - - SPORTS - Nataliya VASILYEVA And Philip ISSA

Rus­sia fired a salvo of cruise mis­siles from the Mediter­ranean on Thurs­day and said they struck Is­lamic State tar­gets in eastern Syria. Ac­tivists there said at least 20 civil­ians were killed in what they de­scribed a “fa­nat­i­cal” bom­bard­ment – blam­ing some of it on Rus­sia and some on the United States.

It was not clear whether there was a con­nec­tion be­tween the Rus­sian mil­i­tary strikes and the ac­tivists’ ac­counts, re­flect­ing the chal­lenge of ver­i­fy­ing the con­flict­ing claims in the hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment of Syria’s civil war, now in its sev­enth year.

The seven Kal­ibr cruise mis­siles, launched from the sub­marines Ve­liky Nov­gorod and Kolpino, hit IS in­stal­la­tions in Deir el-Zour prov­ince, the Rus­sian De­fence Min­istry said. The prov­ince is where forces backed separately by Wash­ing­ton and Moscow are rac­ing to seize ter­ri­tory in the ji­hadist group’s shrink­ing Euphrates River val­ley do­main.

But Turkey-based ac­tivist Omar Abou Layla said their lo­cal con­tacts re­ported “fa­nat­i­cal” lev­els of bom­bard­ment on three IS-held towns and vil­lages along the val­ley – far more than could be ac­counted for by seven mis­siles – in­clud­ing an at­tack on the na­tional hos­pi­tal in the IS strong­hold of al-Mayadeen, where six civil­ians were re­ported killed. Abou Layla put the toll at 20 killed across the prov­ince. He added that the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, also called Deir elZour, suf­fered heavy airstrikes as well.

Rus­sian-backed pro-gov­ern­ment forces have been on the of­fen­sive to take back the city af­ter break­ing an IS siege there last week. It was the first time re­in­force­ments were able to reach the city in nearly three years.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said at least 39 peo­ple were killed and over 100 wounded in strikes in the river val­ley, in­clud­ing some against hos­pi­tals and ferry cross­ings. The mon­i­tor­ing group said the U.S.-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion, which is sup­port­ing non­govern­ment forces, was be­hind some of the strikes.

It has been im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify the claims in­de­pen­dently. Rus­sia and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment only al­lows jour­nal­ists into the coun­try on care­fully or­ches­trated me­dia tours meant to showcase their might and le­git­i­macy in the con­flict; the U.S. does not ac­cept em­bed­ded jour­nal­ists at all.

With pro-gov­ern­ment forces al­ready inside the city of Deir el-Zour, the chief U.S. part­ners in Syria – the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces - launched their own cam­paign to take what they can in the val­ley.

All sides say they are fight­ing ter­ror­ists in the en­ergy-rich re­gion that bor­ders Iraq.

Ac­tivists said the cam­paigns are killing scores of civil­ians. The Ob­ser­va­tory said it has doc­u­mented 106 civil­ian deaths in airstrikes since Sun­day; Abou Layla says his or­ga­ni­za­tion, Deir Ez­zor 24, has recorded 90 fa­tal­i­ties in the same pe­riod.

“We be­lieve they are try­ing to fin­ish the Deir el-Zour bat­tle as quickly as pos­si­ble,” Abou Layla said of Rus­sia, cit­ing pres­sure to cap­ture the Euphrates River val­ley be­fore the U.S. part­ners es­tab­lish a foothold.

Aboard Rus­sia’s frigate Ad­mi­ral Essen, jour­nal­ists watched as the two Kilo-class sub­marines sur­faced to launch the mis­siles, whose con­trails gashed the clear blue sky.

The mis­siles hit south­east of Deir el-Zour, de­stroy­ing a com­mand cen­tre, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions hub and an am­mu­ni­tion de­pot, killing an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of IS fighters, said min­istry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

Rus­sia has pro­vided mil­i­tary sup­port for Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad since 2015.

The mil­i­tants in Deir el-Zour city are sur­rounded by Syr­ian troops on three sides, with their backs to the Euphrates River. Gov­ern­ment forces con­trol more than 60 per cent of the city, which is north of the Euphrates.

U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces, mean­while, are ad­vanc­ing in the sur­round­ing prov­ince from the east and north, on the other side of the river.

Bassem Aziz, a spokesman for the U.S.backed and Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, said his troops took con­trol of an in­dus­trial area east of the river, a few miles from the gov­ern­ment troops.

The coali­tion said last week that it will sup­port its part­ners to de­feat IS and “will do our ut­most to en­sure that (IS) ter­ror­ists do not move to­ward the border of our Iraqi part­ners.”

Overnight, a con­voy of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and their rel­a­tives be­ing evac­u­ated crossed into Deir el-Zour from a desert area in cen­tral Syria, end­ing a stand­off with the coali­tion that briefly over­shad­owed the bat­tle for the prov­ince.

The evac­u­a­tion, ne­go­ti­ated by Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah group, re­moved the mil­i­tants from the Syria-Le­banon border but an­gered Iraq and the U.S., which said the fighters should have been killed on the bat­tle­field, not moved to the Iraq border.

On Wed­nes­day, hundreds of peo­ple flocked to a Rus­sian mil­i­tary check­point near Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, to re­ceive food aid.

A truce has been in ef­fect in the area since Au­gust. Al­though rebels re­port oc­ca­sional shelling, there has been a drop in vi­o­lence since the agree­ment was bro­kered by Rus- sia, Iran and Turkey in May.

Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice and Syr­ian troops handed out plas­tic bags with flour and buck­wheat to the group of mostly women and el­derly men who hud­dled around them.

Rus­sian Col. Alexan­der Sa­zonov told re­porters brought to the check­point that Rus­sia de­liv­ers 10 tons of food there per week and of­fers med­i­cal help, re­in­forc­ing an al­le­ga­tion by Moscow that Western pow­ers and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions would not send aid to gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas of Syria.

A UN of­fi­cial in Syria who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to talk to re­porters said Thurs­day that hu­man­i­tar­ian con­voys to Homs prov­ince have not been can­celled but merely de­layed for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns. He said a con­voy de­liv­ered aid in Homs prov­ince Aug. 19.

AP PHOTO

In this im­age made from video a long-range Kal­ibr cruise mis­sile is launched by a Rus­sian navy sub­ma­rine in the Mediter­ranean on Thurs­day. Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary says it fired seven cruise mis­siles at Is­lamic State tar­gets in the eastern Syr­ian prov­ince of Deir el-Zour.

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