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UK admits RAF was involved in attack on Syrian army

Britain joins Denmark and Australia to confirm they were involved in air strike on Syrian government position that killed at least 60 soldiers
Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon at a meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter Isil in Maryland, USA (AFP)

Britain's Ministry of Defence confirmed on Monday that RAF jets were involved in a US-led coalition air strike in which at least 60 soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are said to have died.

An MoD spokesman said the UK “would not intentionally target Syrian military” and that it was “fully cooperating with the coalition investigation into the attacks".

Washington had earlier confirmed that the mission, against what it took to be a position held by Islamic State fighters at a military airbase in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, had been attacked on Saturday but the raid was halted once the Russians informed the US of the error.

Some reports said that the Syrian army position near the airbase had been surrounded by IS fighters before the air strike and that they were then able to occupy the area afterwards.

On Sunday, IS sources claimed it had shot down a Syrian government plane over the airbase, which has been the scene of bitter fighting in 2016.

The Russians put the death toll from the coalition raid at 62, with around 100 injured. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, quoting a military source, told Reuters that at least 90 Syrian soldiers had died at Deir Ezzor, which has been a key target for IS for some time.

The Syrian army had wrested control of strategic hill tops from IS fighters near the targeted airbase. And Damascus said it had launched attacks on IS positions on Jabal Therdah after they had surrounded key government positions.

As of last weekend, the RAF was estimated to have conducted 1,010 air strikes against IS targets as part of the international coalition - 947 in Iraq and 63 in Syria - using mostly Tornados and Typhoons.

Denmark and Australia also confirmed on Monday that their forces had been involved in the air strike which was believed to have been launched from bases within Iraq.

Denmark said two of its F-16 jets took part in the US-led raid. Both Australia and Denmark said they would cooperate fully with the coalition investigation into how the error was made in targeting the base.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, offered her condolences on behalf of President Barack Obama but insisted that the attack on Assad's forces was unintentional.  

But, in a strongly worded statement from Russia's foreign ministry, Moscow said the error was the result of Washington’s “stubborn refusal” to cooperate in fighting IS militants. The incident came as the week-long ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US to facilitate humanitarian aid to besieged enclaves in Syria reached a critical point.

The attack on Deir Ezzor - along with renewed bombardment of rebel-held areas of Aleppo, reported advances by other rebels on the ground elsewhere, and the failure of UN aid convoys to gain entry to Syria from Turkey - have all placed strain on the ceasefire deal, which included an undertaking by Russia and the US to start joint targeting of militant groups if the truce, which started on 12 September, held for a full week.