US-backed forces say Russia attacked them in eastern Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria say Russia bombed their positions on Monday in a major natural gas field they recently captured from Islamic State militants.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said a Russian airstrike killed one of its fighters and wounded two others in the Conoco gas field, in Deir el-Zour province. Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the report.

SDF fighters captured Conoco field, Syria’s largest, from IS militants on Saturday.

The SDF issued a statement later Monday saying that its forces retaliated by shelling the source of fire and positions of “hostile forces.”

It was not the first time the SDF has accused Russia of targeting its forces in oil and gas-rich Deir el-Zour, where Russian backed Syrian troops are waging a separate offensive against the extremists. The two sides are racing to defeat the militants and snap up oil and gas fields, fueling fears of conflict between the two groups and their superpower sponsors.

Both the U.S. and Russia have embedded special forces with their respective partners and are supporting their advances with aggressive air strikes.

The Pentagon accused Russian jets of attacking the SDF last week. Russia in turn said its forces were targeted twice from SDF-held territory.

SDF fighters have been making their way down the east bank of the Euphrates River in Deir el-Zour, while Syrian troops are mainly operating on the western bank. Last week, Syrian troops along with allied Shiite militias from across the region crossed into parts of the east bank, where they ran into fierce resistance from IS militants entrenched there.

“They are losing fighters wholesale,” said Germany-based Deir el-Zour native Omar Abu Layla, who is monitoring the battles through local contacts.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 72 pro-government fighters have been killed in battle with the jihadists since crossing the Euphrates last week. At least seven Russian soldiers have been killed, and Russia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged that one of its generals was killed in the area on Sunday.

Syria’s largest oil field, the al-Omar, is located on the eastern side of the river.

Elsewhere in Syria, Russian and government warplanes stepped up their airstrikes against rebels as well as al-Qaida-linked insurgents in different areas, straining a patchwork of cease-fires and “de-escalation” agreements that had brought relative calm in recent weeks.

Activists and monitoring groups reported airstrikes in Aleppo, Idlib and…

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