BAGHDAD -- Late night airstrikes in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq targeted Iran-backed militiamen, inflicting casualties, Syrian opposition activists said Wednesday. According to two paramilitary officers in Iraq, some of those killed in the attack were Iranian nationals.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the strikes. The U.S. military, which along with Israel has carried out such strikes in the past, said it was not behind them and had no involvement in the al-Qaim attack. The Israeli army refused to comment on the incident.
The airstrikes, shortly before midnight Tuesday, hit tanker trucks carrying fuel and other trucks carrying weapons for the militias in Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor. It added that at least 14 people, most of them militiamen, were killed in the strike.
The Deir Ezzor 24, an activist collective, reported three airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militias in the Syrian border town of Boukamal and nearby areas. It had no immediate word on casualties.
Earlier, members of Iraqi paramilitary groups operating in the area said an airstrike on a convoy carrying fuel across the Iraqi border into Syria killed at least 10 people late Tuesday. The strike hit a convoy of about 15 trucks that had crossed into Syria near the town of al-Qaim, two paramilitary officers told The Associated Press.
It was unclear where the convoy was coming from, but the officers said some of those killed were Iranian nationals. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strikes with reporters.
Iranian state television’s English-language service, Press TV, early on Wednesday cited unnamed sources claiming there was an attack on a fuel truck convoy crossing from Iraq into Syria at the al-Qaim border crossing. Press TV claimed the convoy was carrying Iranian oil to Lebanon through Syria. Iranian officials offered no casualty details.
Iran's state TV claimed the convoy attack was warried out by U.S. drones and helicopters, offering no evidence for the claim. It said the convoy included 22 tanker trucks, adding that the attack took place after eight of the trucks crossed into Syria.
The U.S. military denied this. Army Maj. Rachael L. Jeffcoat told the AP on Wednesday that “no U.S. forces or U.S.-led coalition (members) conducted an airstrike in al-Qaim, Iraq, on the border with Syria.
“This was not a U.S. strike,” said U.S. Army Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for the military’s Central Command.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. It has acknowledged, however, that it targets arms shipments and posts of Iran-allied militant groups, such as Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
Iran is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has sent thousands of Iran-backed fighters to help Syrian troops during the country’s 11-year civil war. Both Tehran and Assad's government are also allied with Hezbollah, which has fought alongside Assad's forces in the war.
From its base in Beirut, Hezbollah said it had nothing to do with the convoy that was attacked.
In August, the U.S. military carried out airstrikes in Deir el-Zour targeting Iran-backed militiamen. The Pentagon said the strikes were a message to Iran and Tehran-backed militias that targeted American troops earlier that month and several other times over the past year.
At the time, the Observatory and Deir Ezzor 24 said the U.S. airstrikes targeted the Ayash Camp, run by the Fatimiyoun group made up of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan. The Observatory reported that at least six Syrian and foreign militants were killed, while Deir Ezzor 24 reported 10 deaths.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.