U.S.-Led Air Strikes Hit Qaida Branch in Syria

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U.S.-led air strikes in Syria hit Al-Qaida-linked militants and an Islamist rebel brigade in a rare expansion of weeks-long raids targeting the Islamic State group, a monitor said Thursday.

American media reported that 24-year-old French bombmaker David Drugeon, a Muslim convert who joined an Al-Qaida offshoot, the Khorasan group, was killed in the overnight strikes.

The raids hit Al-Qaida affiliate Al-Nusra Front for only the second time since the U.S.-led coalition began bombings in the war-torn country on September 23, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Strikes near the Turkish border also targeted the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group for the first time, the British-based monitoring group said.

The Ahrar al-Sham rebel brigade is believed to have between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters and espouses a conservative ideology, though it has not expressed the same transnational jihadist aspirations as Al-Nusra or IS.

But many of its top leaders have ties to Al-Qaida and the group has fought alongside Al-Nusra against other moderate rebel groupings in parts of northern Syria.

Fox News and other American media reported that a U.S. strike hit a vehicle in Syria's Idlib province, believed to be carrying Drugeon.

The car's driver lost a leg and was not expected to live, while a passenger believed to be Drugeon was killed, Fox said, citing "well-placed military sources."

U.S. officials confirmed they had carried out strikes Wednesday but said they could not confirm Drugeon had been killed.

"We are still assessing the outcome of the attack," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told AFP.

He said "initial indications" suggest the strikes destroyed or severely damaged "several Khorasan Group vehicles, terrorists and buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas, IED-making facilities and training facilities.

The Syria conflict began as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2011 and has since escalated into a multi-sided civil war that has drawn thousands of jihadists from overseas.

Syria's foreign minister told a Lebanese newspaper that Washington had pledged its air raids would not target Assad's army.

Even so, Waleed Muallem said Damascus was asking Russia to speed up delivery of controversial S-300 anti-aircraft missiles because of concerns U.S. President Barack Obama faces increasing pressure to attack Syria.

The strikes against Al-Nusra killed several jihadists and two children in Idlib province while six jihadists were killed in raids in Aleppo, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.

The Al-Qaida affiliate confirmed the strikes on Twitter, saying they were carried out by "the alliance of Crusaders and Arabs on Al-Nusra positions, causing deaths, mostly of civilians."

On the first day of the U.S.-led campaign in Syria Washington said it had struck a group of Al-Qaida veterans that it called "Khorasan", although analysts said the militants belonged to Al-Nusra.

Until now there had been no other reported strikes on groups outside IS.

The latest raids comes after Al-Nusra made gains against Western-backed rebel fighters in the Idlib region.

Speaking to Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper, Syria's foreign minister said Washington had pledged that the coalition strikes would not target the Syrian military.

"Do we trust this commitment? For now. We realize that President Barack Obama, for domestic reasons, wants to avoid war with Syria," Muallem said.

"But we do not know how Obama will act under mounting pressure, and the pressure will only increase if the Republicans achieve a majority in the U.S. mid-term elections, so we have to prepare ourselves."

The interview was conducted before Tuesday's U.S. elections, which saw the Republicans regain control of Congress.

Muallem said Damascus had "bluntly" explained its concerns to Moscow, asking them to "provide us with advanced weapons."

S-300 batteries are advanced surface-to-air weapons that can take out aircraft or guided missiles, and Russia's planned sale of the missiles to Damascus has raised international concerns.

Russia has remained a staunch ally of Assad throughout the conflict that began in March 2011.

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