Unidentified planes hit Iraqi militiamen in Syria, killing 8

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, visit the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Putin has traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally. The rare visit Tuesday comes amid soaring tensions between Iran and the United States following the U.S. drone strike last week that killed a top Iranian general who led forces supporting Assad in Syria’s civil war. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

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BEIRUT (AP) — Unidentified planes struck targets in Syria near the border with Iraq on Friday, killing eight Iran-backed Iraqi militiamen, Syrian activists and two Iraqi officials said, an attack that comes amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the planes targeted positions belonging to pro-Iran militias in the Boukamal area, near the border with Iraq. The Britain-based organization, which documents the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the planes struck, among other targets, weapons depots and vehicles belonging to the militias.

An Iraqi security official and another official, who was from the Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, said warplanes targeted two vehicles carrying missiles on the Syrian side of the border. The strike was most likely carried out by Israeli warplanes, they said, but offered no evidence.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on the Syria bombing, which comes at a time of high tension between Iran and the U.S.

The Iraqi officials identified the eight casualties as Iraqi militia fighters while the Observatory only said the eight were not Syrians, without giving their nationality. The death toll could rise further, officials said, as there were also wounded militiamen, some reportedly in serious conditions.

Another Iraqi official said those targeted belong to the Imam Ali Brigades, an Iran-backed faction within the PMF. The three Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make statements to the media.

Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier.

Deir Ezzor 24, an activist collective that reports on news in the border area, said the planes struck trucks carrying weapons as well as depots for ballistic missiles in the area. Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based activist from Syria’s eastern Deir el-Zour area who runs the group, said the attack triggered “a huge explosion” heard in the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Sound and Picture, another activist collective in the Deir el-Zour area, said “unidentified planes” struck militia targets in Boukamal. There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities.

The U.S. carried out military strikes in the area on Dec. 29, killing 25 members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, in retaliation to a rocket attack on a military base in Iraq that killed a U.S. contractor. The U.S. blamed that attack on a Iranian-backed Iraqi militia.

The reported airstrikes Friday came days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most powerful general after he landed at Baghdad airport, drawing angry calls for revenge and escalating tensions to the brink of an all-out war between the two sides.

Iran responded by firing a barrage of missiles at military bases in Iraq that host U.S. troops. Since then, both sides have signaled they were stepping back from further escalation but tensions remain high and the region on edge.

Amid the soaring tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to Syria this week for talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Russia has been a key ally for Assad, offering crucial military and political backing throughout the country’s civil war.

The area struck Friday is key to a land corridor for Tehran that links Iran across Iraq and Syria through Lebanon. The Observatory report on Friday claimed that Putin had informed Assad during the visit of a U.S. intention to “close” the land corridor for good.

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Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.

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