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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

US launches first strikes on fighters in Syria

The United States and its Arab allies bombed militant groups in Syria for the first time today, killing scores of Islamic State fighters, members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group and opening a new front amid shifting Middle East alliances.

The attacks encountered no objection, and even signs of tacit approval, from President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government, which said Washington had warned Damascus in advance.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes against Islamic State targets, US Central Command said. The countries are hostile to Assad but now fear the fighters who emerged from the rebellion they backed in Syria's 3-year-old civil war.

US President Barack Obama said in a televised statement that the breadth of the coalition, including the five Arab states, showed the United States was not alone in its second campaign of air strikes. Since Aug. 8, US air strikes have hit militant targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where it is at odds with Assad.

The White House said some of the strikes in Syria had targeted an al Qaeda affiliate known as the Khorasan group, which it said had been plotting an imminent attack either in the United States or in Europe.

"Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people," Obama said before leaving the White House for the United Nations.

In New York, Obama planned more talks to enlarge the alliance against extremist groups that emerged and gained power while trying to topple Assad. In a reversal, Turkey indicated Tuesday it would provide military or logistical backing.

"We will give the necessary support to the operation," President Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish broadcaster NTV.

The NATO ally, which is alarmed by Islamic State but also worried about Kurdish fighters and opposed to any action that might help Assad, had refused a military role in the coalition while 46 of its citizens were held by the group in Iraq. Turkey is home to a major US base in Incirlik, which officials said has not been used so far in the strikes in Iraq or Syria.

Warplanes and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles struck dozens of targets including fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage sites, a finance center, trucks and armed vehicles, CENTCOM said.

The US-led coalition launched 16 airstrikes on Islamic State across Syria, CENTCOM said in a statement later today.

Washington also said US forces had acted alone to launch eight strikes in northeastern Syria on what they called the Khorasan group.

Militants on social media mourned Khorasan's reputed leader, Mohsin al-Fadhli, a former associate of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. US officials have not confirmed his death.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 70 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasakah.

It said at least 50 fighters and eight civilians were killed in strikes on the Khorasan group, which was thought to operate in Syria with the Nusra Front, another al Qaeda offshoot that opposes Islamic State.

The air attacks fulfil Obama's pledge to strike in Syria against Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi'ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.

It remains to be seen how effective air strikes can be in Syria, where Washington lacks a strong ally to fight the group on the ground. The militants vowed reprisals, and an allied group is threatening to kill a French hostage captured in Algeria.

In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI said they had alerted law enforcement agencies to a threat from Syrian-based al Qaeda operatives "nearing the execution phase for an attack in Europe or the homeland."

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Tags:  Syria  US  airstrikes  





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