BEIRUT – At least 53 civilians, including 21 children, perished early Sunday morning when Russian airstrikes hit “residential buildings” in a village held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, a monitor said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit the village of Al-Shafah in Deir Ezzor province, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
The Observatory relies on a network of sources inside Syria, and says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.
The monitor had initially given a death toll of 34 civilians but the number spiked after more bodies were recovered.
“The toll increased after removing the debris in a long day of rescue operation,” Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding the strikes hit “residential buildings.”
At least 18 people were also wounded in the air raids, he added.
Russia is a close ally of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and in September 2015 began a military intervention in support of his government that has gradually helped Damascus regain territory.
Syria’s Deir Ezzor is one of the last places IS jihadis hold territory in the country, after being driven from their major strongholds including their one-time de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
The oil-rich eastern province that borders Iraq was once almost completely under IS control, but the jihadis now hold just 9 percent of Deir Ezzor, according to the Observatory.
They have faced two separate offensives there, one led by the regime with Russian backing and the other by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
More than 340,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
The latest strikes come as the United Nations tries to revitalize its flagging efforts to end a 6-year-old civil war that has left Syria devastated and huge swaths of its population refugees.
On Tuesday, the eighth round of U.N.-brokered talks were to kick off.
They have achieved little so far, but may be bolstered by the opposition’s decision to bring a unified delegation to Geneva for the first time.
For progress to happen rival sides will need to overcome the hurdle that has derailed past discussions — the fate of Assad.
He retains Moscow’s support but is loathed by much of Syria’s rebel opposition who want him gone.
Backed by Russia’s decisive military support, Assad’s government has regained control of 55 percent of the country, including major cities Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, and around two-thirds of the population lives in regime-held areas.
The rest is carved up between rebel factions, jihadis and Kurdish forces.
Some experts believe that Russia has clearly put itself in the driver’s seat in recent months, especially as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has pulled back from Syrian diplomatic front.
Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel-backer Turkey have hosted negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana that led to the creation of four “de-escalation zones” that produced a drop in violence, though deadly airstrikes and battles continue in some areas.
And this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a “congress” of Syrian regime and opposition figures, a move backed by Ankara and Tehran.