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WASHINGTON — Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian Arab fighters who were being trained by the United States, the commander of the American-led operation in Iraq and Syria said Wednesday. American advisers were about three miles away when the Russian strike occurred.

The episode pointed to the risk of unintended clashes among the myriad forces operating on a fluid battlefield in Syria, as the American command looks toward the fight to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in the country.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria, said the strike by Russian and Syrian government planes led to casualties among the Syrian fighters, but he declined to say how many were hurt or if any were killed.

He added that the Russian attack appeared to have been a mistake: The Russian military thought it was bombing villages held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, when in fact they were recently occupied by Syrian Arab fighters.

“We had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS,” General Townsend said in a video news conference with reporters at the Pentagon. “Actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces.”

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Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria, during a tour north of Baghdad last month. CreditAli Abdul Hassan/Associated Press

A spokesman for the American-led command in Baghdad said that the Russian airstrikes took place about 10 miles southwest of Manbij. The Russian bombing stopped after American military officers at the air war command in Qatar called their Russian counterparts in Syria.

In Moscow, the Defense Ministry asserted that the United States had provided the coordinates of American-backed forces in northern Syria before the airstrikes and that Russian and Syria warplanes had not struck any areas that had been properly designated.

“No airstrikes were carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft in areas designated by the U.S.,” the ministry said in a statement.

The battlefield in northern Syria is crowded with a diverse array of forces near Al Bab, including Turkish-backed Syrian militias, Syrian government forces, Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by the United States, and ISIS militants.

“Around Al Bab, all the forces that are acting in Syria have converged literally within hand-grenade range of one another,” General Townsend said.

There has been a similar convergence of forces to the east where Syrian government forces have advanced to the point where they are within “rifle range” of Syrian Arab fighters backed by the United States who are defending the area around Manbij, the general added.

“It’s very difficult and complicated,” he said.

General Townsend said the United States was encouraging all sides to focus on the fight against the Islamic State and not let tensions among groups divert them from the need to take Raqqa.

“That’s what we ought to keep our efforts focused on and not fighting deliberately or accidentally with one another,” he said.

This is the second time in recent weeks that there has been an episode of so-called friendly fire involving the Russians. Last month, Russian fighters mistakenly bombed Turkish soldiers near Al Bab.

The Russian airstrikes also raise the question of whether the American military needs to broaden its dialogue with Russian commanders over operations in Syria. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met last month in Azerbaijan with Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff. It was their first meeting and the discussion included how to “enhance communications,” the Pentagon said.

Discussing the fighting in Iraq, General Townsend also said that some low-level Islamic State fighters had sought to escape from Mosul disguised as civilians, but that they had been detained.

He said that there were 12,000 to 15,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, some 2,000 of them in western Mosul and in and around the nearby town of Tal Afar.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has presented the White House with his recommendations on how to step up the military campaign against ISIS, which President Trump vowed to “demolish and destroy” in his address to Congress on Tuesday.

General Townsend suggested that he did not foresee the United States “bringing in large numbers of coalition troops” to help with Iraq and the assault on Raqqa.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2017 by .
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