Russian air raids blamed for civilian deaths ahead of Syria talks

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Suspected Russian raids killed 47 civilians in war-ravaged eastern Syria on Saturday, amid reports U.S. forces are building up an air base to bolster their fight against jihadis further north.

Meanwhile, senior diplomats scrambled to resolve the key question of who will represent Syria’s opposition at crucial talks next week aimed at ending the nearly-five year war.

In eastern Syria, the 47 civilians were killed in airstrikes suspected to have been carried out by Russian warplanes on a jihadi-held village.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine children and two women were among the dead in Khasham, which is controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The village is in Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, where IS has sought to advance in recent days despite a barrage of Russian and Syrian government airstrikes.

The weeklong IS offensive on the provincial capital has left nearly 500 people dead and sparked fears of mass killings among the 200,000 people still living there.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.

The latest round of Syria peace talks are planned to begin on Monday in Geneva but were at risk of being delayed partly because of a dispute over who will comprise the opposition delegation.

Syrian armed rebel groups said on Saturday they held the Syrian government and Russia responsible for any failure of peace talks to end the country’s civil war, even before negotiations were due to start.

“We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared … if that’s not possible, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh,” Biden said at a news conference after a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Daesh is the pejorative Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

A U.S. official later clarified that Biden was talking about a military solution to Islamic State, not Syria as a whole.

The Saudi-backed Syrian opposition ruled out even indirect negotiations unless Damascus took steps including a halt to Russian air strikes.

Biden said he and Davutoglu also discussed how the two NATO allies could further support Sunni Arab rebel forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.