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US-led strikes kill 100 pro-regime personnel in Syria

A picture taken on February 7, 2018 shows smoke plumes rising following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Arbin, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus
Amer ALMOHIBANY (AFP)
'Syrian pro-regime forces initiated an unprovoked attack against Syrian Democratic Forces'

The US-led coalition killed at least 100 regime and allied fighters in retaliation for an attack in eastern Syria, a US official said, in one of the deadliest incidents of its kind.

The flare-up lasted into the small hours of Thursday and was sparked by an attack on positions held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Deir Ezzor province.

The clash came against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Washington and Damascus over an uptick in the suspected use of chemical weapons by the regime and allied militia.

According to the US Central Command, coalition advisers were also present at the site of the attack late on Tuesday.

"The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression," it said.

"We estimate more than 100 Syrian pro-regime forces were killed while engaging SDF and coalition forces," while one SDF member was wounded, a US military official said on condition of anonymity.

The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air and artillery strikes after "20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres (yards) of the SDF headquarters location," the official said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which only confirmed 20 dead among regime and allied forces, the initial attack took place near Khasham.

The town lies along the Euphrates river, southeast of the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor.

"Regime forces struck SDF positions in several villages and an oil field with artillery fire," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

"The SDF responded with artillery fire on regime positions in the town of Khasham before the intervention of coalition forces," he said.

Regime and SDF fighters were involved in several skirmishes in the area last year, as they each conducted parallel operations against some of the Islamic State jihadist group's last bastions.

Hamza Al-Ajweh (AFP)

- Eastern Ghouta strikes by regime -

For the fourth consecutive day, heavy regime bombing and raids have continued in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near to Damascus where 22 civilian were killed on Thursday, a monitor said.

Moayad al-Hafi, a rescue worker, said his team was hit in a double-tap strike as they were pulling bodies out in Jisreen. 

"As we were pulling out the children and the dead from under the rubble, they targeted us with five rockets -- directly targeting us," said Hafi, 24. 

Eastern Ghouta, which lies just east of the capital Damascus, is controlled by rebel factions including Islamists.

An estimated 400,000 people live under a suffocating government-imposed siege, which has made food and medicine nearly impossible to access.

Syrian government warplanes have ratcheted up their bombardment of Eastern Ghouta this week, leaving dozens dead and hundreds in need of medical care. 

Regime bombing raids left 38 civilians dead on Wednesday, the Observatory said in a new toll. 

It came on the heels of the bloodiest day in months for Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, when 80 civilians were killed in strikes. 

Most of the other rebel-controlled territory surrounding Damascus has been recaptured by government forces either through military operations or local truce agreements. 

Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold, is ostensibly included in a "de-escalation" deal that is meant to tamp down violence in a handful of areas across the country, but the bloodshed has escalated dramatically this week.

ABDULMONAM EASSA (AFP)

- Turkey plans to host summit -

Turkey said it planned to host a new three-way summit in Istanbul with the presidents of Russia and Iran, in a bid to salvage increasingly fragile efforts to end the ongoing fighting.

The meeting -- the second such tripartite summit on Syria -- would come as Turkey presses on with its Olive Branch offensive against Kurdish militia inside northern Syria in an area where Russia has an influence.

No date for the summit was announced but Turkey is currently engaged in intense diplomatic activity with visits to Ankara by US national security advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expected in the coming days.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to hold the summit in Istanbul alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in telephone talks Thursday, a Turkish presidential source said.

Putin had already hosted a similar three-way summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in November.

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