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Russian jets kill civilians fleeing across Euphrates: Syrian opposition

At least 60 civilians were killed trying to flee heavy fighting in Deir Ezzor province, war monitor says
Russian military vehicle on road heading to Deir Ezzor recently (Reuters)

Military jets believed to be Russian killed at least 60 civilians trying to flee heavy fighting in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province of Syria when their small boats were targeted as they sought to cross the Euphrates River, opposition activists, former residents and a war monitor said late Wednesday.

They said the jets targeted makeshift rubber dinghies and boats carrying dozens of families fleeing the town of al-Ashara along the western banks of the Euphrates that lies south of Deir Ezzor city, the provincial capital.

The Islamic State (IS) group's last major stronghold, the cities, towns and farms in the fertile strip along the Euphrates bordering Iraq are fast becoming the focus of Syria's six-year-long civil war.

"Russian jets staged a second wave of strikes on the boats that were fleeing across the river, causing more casualties among those who rushed to rescue earlier survivors," said Abdullah al-Akaidat, a tribal figure in northern Syria from al-Ashara who is in contact with relatives in the area.

Relentless air strikes by Russian jets in Deir Ezzor province have intensified in recent days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The war monitor documented the death of at least 185 civilians, including at least 45 woman and children, in five days of aerial strikes.

Russia is throwing military weight behind the Syrian army campaign to regain the province bordering Iraq, racing with US-backed forces to grab territory from IS.

US coalition jets last year destroyed bridges that linked villages on the northeast of the Euphrates river with towns on the opposite bank.

Although the goal was to cut militant supply lines, it forced people to use ferries to cross the river and its tributaries and ruptured a major lifeline for civilians, raising prices of goods and food.

Fifteen civilians were killed in air strikes during the last 24 hours on the town of al-Quriya, just further north of the town of Ashara along the river, said former residents in touch with relatives.

Thousands of residents of the eastern province are fleeing war-torn zones to the safety of towns that have escaped relatively unscathed from the relentless fighting.

The Russians built a bridge across the Euphrates near Deir Ezzor city to move troops and equipment.

The militants waged a surprise counter-offensive and claimed to have killed dozens of Syrian troops, Russian ground troops and Iranian-backed fighters. They regained some territory along the desert road from the Homs province to Deir Ezzor.

Pro-government forces say they have largely repelled the counter-attack.

The Syrian army is seeking to advance towards Mayadeen, a city on the river 44km southeast of Deir Ezzor.

Mayadeen is a major IS stronghold that has also been targeted by the US-led coalition, which earlier this year also increased bombing of the group in cities and towns along the Euphrates Valley.

Russia rejects opposition and human rights groups' accusations that the bombing campaign has killed thousands of civilians since the major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Scores of hospitals and civil defence centres have been bombed in what the opposition said is a "scorched earth policy" to paralyse life in rebel-held areas. Moscow says it only attacks militants. 

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