Toll of airstrikes on town climbs to 61 dead in Syria

The at­tack was the lat­est breach in a “de-es­ca­la­tion” agree­ment me­di­ated by Rus­sia that sought to pro­tect the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion but that has largely proven un­en­force­able.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - PHILIP ISSA In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Sarah El Deeb and Vladimir Isachenkov of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

BEIRUT — Syr­ian res­cue work­ers on Tues­day con­tin­ued their search for vic­tims still un­der the rub­ble a day af­ter airstrikes hit a busy mar­ket in a rebel-held town in the coun­try’s north, killing at least 61 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to a mon­i­tor­ing group and res­cuers.

Ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, there were at least three airstrikes on the mar­ket in the town of Atareb on Mon­day — those killed in­cluded six women, five chil­dren and three po­lice of­fi­cers. The Ob­ser­va­tory’s di­rec­tor, Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, said the rest were male civil­ians.

The Syr­ian Civil De­fense search-and-res­cue vol­un­teers, known as the White Hel­mets, said they gave up hope of find­ing more sur­vivors af­ter dawn, though re­cov­ery ef­forts con­tin­ued. They said the death toll climbed to at least 61 on Tues­day; 90 peo­ple were in­jured.

Atareb and the coun­try­side around it re­main out­side the con­trol of the gov­ern­ment in Da­m­as­cus. Gov­ern­ment forces re­took the nearby city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, af­ter an at­tack on the rebel-held neigh­bor­hoods there in 2015.

The town’s pop­u­la­tion swelled with the ar­rival of Syr­i­ans who fled from fight­ing else­where in the coun­try’s north. Atarab’s mar­ket drew not just the towns­peo­ple but also shop­pers from the coun­try­side and nearby vil­lages.

“You can see the body frag­ments in the rub­ble,” said Yasser Hmeish, a med­i­cal tech­ni­cian at the scene. “This morn­ing I saw civil­ians and res­cue work­ers try­ing to lift the ce­ment chunks to find the miss­ing.”

“There were restau­rants, mo­bile phone shops, butch­ers: It was a mar­ket in the full sense of the word,” Hmeish added. “It’s been com­pletely de­stroyed.” Videos from the scene show a to­tally col­lapsed build­ing amid other smaller build­ings, and res­cuers step­ping over the rub­ble to get to ar­eas where they pull out sur­vivors.

The airstrikes ripped through the mar­ket, crushed build­ings and dam­aged an ad­ja­cent traf­fic po­lice sta­tion. Sur­vivors found limbs in the rub­ble and bod­ies with heads crushed by the pres­sure of the blasts.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said it couldn’t de­ter­mine whether Rus­sia or the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment was be­hind the at­tack. The op­po­si­tion Syr­ian Na­tional Coali­tion ac­cused Rus­sia, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s chief mil­i­tary backer.

The at­tack was the lat­est breach in a “de-es­ca­la­tion” agree­ment me­di­ated by Rus­sia that sought to pro­tect the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion but that has largely proven un­en­force­able.

Also Tues­day, Syria’s gov­ern­ment called on the United States to with­draw its forces from the coun­try now that the fight against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group is nearly over. The For­eign Min­istry state­ment, car­ried by state-run me­dia, said the pres­ence of U.S troops will not force a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict.

The com­ments came a day af­ter U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mat­tis said “we are not go­ing to just walk away right now” be­fore the U.N-backed po­lit­i­cal process yields re­sults.

The United States “will not force a so­lu­tion through mil­i­tary pres­sure but in­stead [it] will pro­long the cri­sis and make it more com­pli­cated,” the min­istry said.

U.S troops and ad­vis­ers are supporting the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces in their fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in north­ern and east­ern Syria. Kur­dish of­fi­cials want the Amer­i­cans to re­main in the coun­try to help pre­vent clashes with pro-gov­ern­ment forces, which are also bat­tling the Is­lamic State.

The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops are rac­ing for con­trol of ter­ri­to­ries pre­vi­ously con­trolled by the Is­lamic State in east­ern Syria. Syr­ian troops and al­lied mili­tias seized the last town near the bor­der with Iraq, Bouka­mal, be­fore los­ing it hours later in an Is­lamic State coun­terof­fen­sive. Mean­while, Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces con­tin­ues to bat­tle mil­i­tants on the op­po­site side of the river.

U.S. of­fi­cials say they are main­tain­ing con­tacts with their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts to en­sure no fric­tion oc­curs be­tween the two forces.

Ira­nian-backed mili­tias also shore up As­sad’s forces.

In Moscow, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said there was no agree­ment with the U.S. to have Ira­nian or pro-Ira­nian forces with­draw from ar­eas near the Syr­ian bor­der with Is­rael.

The U.S. is seek­ing a deal to push them away from the fron­tier with its ally Is­rael. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Mon­day that his coun­try would carry out op­er­a­tions inside Syria ac­cord­ing to its “se­cu­rity needs.”

Is­rael has largely stayed on the side­lines of the Syr­ian war, but its of­fi­cials have said they will not tol­er­ate Ira­nian mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria. They have ac­knowl­edged car­ry­ing out dozens of airstrikes on sus­pected Ira­nian weapons ship­ments to the Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah. Is­rael is also sus­pected of strik­ing Syr­ian mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions.

Syria’s civil war, now in its sev­enth year, has killed at least 400,000 peo­ple and dis­placed 11 mil­lion — half of Syria’s pre­war pop­u­la­tion.

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