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US 'horrified' over deadly attacks in Syria's Raqqa amid reports of fresh bombings

At least 100 people are known to have died in attacks by Assad's forces - military insiders say the President is trying to join the anti-IS coalition
Residents of Raqqa seal the bodies of the dead in bags - activists say over 200 people may have been killed (Twitter / @hothif86)

The US State Department has said it is “horrified” by Tuesday’s attacks on the Syrian town of Raqqa by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Amid condemnations of the previous bombings, activists on the ground in the town reported that government forces had launched at least four fresh attacks on Thursday morning.

Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered said that fourth strike killed most members of the Abdel Aziz family when it hit their house next door to the engineering faculty of the city's university.

Translation: The streets of Raqqa city are completely empty of residents, who fear [strikes from] the planes. Ambulances can be heard in the town.

The bombings earlier this week, which hit at least nine sites in the town on Tuesday morning including a popular market and a post office, are now known to have killed upwards of 100 people, the majority of them civilians.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a press conference in Washington that the US had "consistently condemned the [Assad] regime's violence directed against civilians and its ongoing human rights abuses and violations of international law."

"We are horrified by the reports that the Assad regime's airstrikes yesterday in Raqa, Syria killed dozens of civilians and demolished residential areas," Psaki said.  

Psaki told reporters that the US remains "committed to supporting the Syrian opposition and working towards a political solution that stops the violence and leads to a future of freedom and dignity for all Syrians."

The US State Department said Assad's government had no value for human life. 

"The Assad regime's continued slaughter of Syrian civilians further exposes its callous disregard for human life." 

"We've been clear that Assad long ago lost all legitimacy to govern and that the Syrian regime must be held responsible for its brutality and atrocities against the Syrian people."  

Psaki accused Assad loyalists of "murder, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual violence and the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs." 

But the US itself faced criticism on Wednesday amid accusations that it was seeking to justify the attacks, after the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilisation Operations said civilians had been “caught in the crossfire” of bombs targeting Islamic State. 

Activists in the town say the bombings targeted civilians directly – the group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered has put its final death toll at 220, including a large number of women and children.

Syrian activist Orwa Nyrabia criticised the US stance, saying that the people of Raqqa, living under Islamic State’s “fascist” rule, were seen by the coalition as “low-cost collateral damage.”

Children's toys scattered on the ground in a video circulated by Raqqa activists (Youtube screengrab)

Assad 'attempting to join anti-IS coalition'

In the wake of the deadly attacks, a key Syrian opposition group demanded more action from the US, which said again on Wednesday that President Assad lost his “legitimacy” long ago.

The Syrian National Coalition, a coalition of opposition groups formed in October 2011, condemned the attacks and accused Assad’s forces of co-opting the US-led coalition's anti-ISIL airstrikes to slaughter civilians and consolidate its brutal dictatorship.”

The group called on the US and its allies to respond immediately to the threat of any further attacks by government forces, including by shooting down planes that fail to leave areas when warned.

Islamic State have been using the northern town of Raqqa as their base in Syria for almost a year, and a US-led bombing campaign has targeted the city on several occasions.

Local radio station Nasaem Syria reported a heavy presence of coalition drones in the skies above Raqqa on Wednesday night, though no attacks were launched.

Attacks on Raqqa by forces loyal to embattled President Assad have been less frequent, with the government preferring to strike areas under the control of more mainstream rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front.

Ibrahim al-Jabouri, a defected general from Assad’s army, commented on the strikes, saying they were an attempt to show that the government is “against terrorism.”

Jabouri told Arabic daily al-Quds that by launching strikes against Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, Assad is aiming to “squeeze his way into the US-led coalition against IS, despite their repeated refusal to let him join or even to co-ordinate with him.”

When the US-led coalition announced that it would begin bombing Islamic State in Syria, there was concern that the campaign could ultimately benefit Assad’s government, which is seeking to shore up its power and wipe out armed groups including IS.

In the wake of Tuesday’s attacks, a resident of Raqqa told the BBC on Wednesday that people were “very angry and afraid” after the strikes – “nobody is walking in the city’s streets.”

“In the morning there are regime airstrikes, and in the evening there are [anti-IS] alliance airstrikes.”