BEIRUT: Syrian regime air strikes on the Islamic State (IS) group stronghold Raqa have killed at least 95 people, while a delegation from President Bashar al-Assad’s government held talks on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) with key ally Russia.
The bombing on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) was the deadliest by Assad’s air force in Raqa since fighters from the Sunni extremist IS seized the city last year and declared it their capital.
More than half of the dead were civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It was unknown how many jihadists were killed.
Raqa was the first and only provincial capital lost by the regime, and was later overrun by IS, which has used it as the headquarters for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” straddling Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The multi-sided Syrian conflict has killed more than 195,000 people and forced millions from their homes since it began three and a half years ago as an uprising against Assad’s regime.
The government has stepped up air strikes against IS-held towns in the north and east in recent months, with most of the casualties reported to have been civilians.
Raqa has also been the target of repeated air strikes by the US-led coalition fighting the jihadists.
Syria’s exiled opposition National Coalition condemned the strikes as a “brutal massacre,” warning that “many seem now convinced that Assad is the major beneficiary of the coalition strikes” against the jihadists.
Behind closed doors
In Russia, a Syrian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem held talks with Assad’s key ally President Vladimir Putin at his Black Sea retreat in Sochi on Wednesday.
But the content of the closed-door discussions was not revealed.
Ahead of the talks, Russia’s foreign ministry said the issue of “mending the political process” would be high on the agenda.
Two rounds of Unite Nations-brokered talks were held in Switzerland in early 2013. Both ended without agreement.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Russian news reports quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying no new talks were possible at this time.
“If you think that a conference will be announced similar to the one that was held in January this year with the participation of 50-odd states, thousands of journalists, bright lights, there won’t be such a conference,” Interfax quoted him as saying.
Lavrov blamed “external interference in the Syrian conflict” for undermining the prospects for new direct negotiations.
A former leader of the National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is reported to have held talks at the Russian foreign ministry on November 7.
The coalition, which has been internationally recognized but lacks influence in Syria, has voiced skepticism about prospects for progress.
The delegation from Damascus was also expected to push for the delivery of long-sought S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
In September, Putin said their delivery had been suspended without saying why, though the decision came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia to ask Moscow to halt the shipments.
After the meeting, Lavrov was quoted as saying “Russia will continue helping Syria protect itself against terrorism,” without elaborating.
The UN and human rights groups have repeatedly called on all sides in the war, including the regime, to stop using weapons that fail to discriminate between civilians and military targets.