BEIRUT (AP) — American aircraft bombed al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria on Thursday, and activists said another radical rebel group also was hit - an apparent expansion of the aerial campaign against the Islamic State group to target other extremists deemed a threat to the West.
Initial reports indicated a French militant the U.S. says was a top bomb-maker was hit and possibly killed in the attack.
The airstrikes near Syria's border with Turkey marked the second time the U.S. has targeted the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian franchise and a major player in the fight against President Bashar Assad.
Missiles also struck a compound of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most prominent brigades fighting Assad in the country's 3½-year civil war, activists and rebels said. It was the first time a group other than the Islamic State or Syria's al-Qaida affiliate was bombed by the U.S. since its operation began in September.
The strikes risk further alienating many in the opposition who view the two targeted groups as important allies in the fight against the Syrian regime, while leaving Assad untouched. It also could undermine Washington's already shaky plan to work with what it considers moderate rebels against Islamic extremists in Syria.
The Pentagon said fighter jets, bombers and drones struck overnight near the Syrian town of Sarmada against five targets belonging to the Khorasan group, which the U.S. says is a Nusra Front cell plotting to attack American interests. An initial assessment indicated the airstrikes destroyed or damaged several of the group's bomb-making facilities and training areas, as well as vehicles and meeting areas, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Two Idlib-based activists, Abu Abdul-Qader and Ahmad Kaddour, said the strikes hit a Nusra Front compound in the village of Harem and a vehicle near the town of Sarmada. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the strikes and said at least six Nusra fighters were killed in one location.
A senior U.S. official said one of the targets was a French militant and bomb-maker, David Drugeon. The official said the U.S. is still assessing the results of the strikes, but believes they were successful and that it appears Drugeon was hit. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Central Command official in charge of U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East, said at a Washington forum that he would not discuss results of the strikes until they had been more fully studied. He suggested, however, that Drugeon was targeted and may have been hit.
"He is clearly one of the leadership elements and one of the most dangerous elements in that organization," Austin said. "And so any time we can take their leadership out, it's a good thing."
While the Nusra Front is considered a terrorist group by the United States, among the Syrian opposition it has a degree of support and respect because its fighters are on the front lines alongside other rebels battling Assad's forces. But in the chaos and shifting allegiances of Syria's conflict, it has also fought rival rebel factions, most recently overrunning the strongholds of Western-backed groups in Idlib province - the same area as the latest strikes.
The U.S. military denied any link between that Nusra Front offensive and Thursday's strikes, stressing that the aerial attack was only directed at the Khorasan group "whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people."
But such statements rang hollow with many in the Syrian opposition. When the U.S. first targeted the Nusra Front on the opening night of its airstrikes against the Islamic State group, the move touched off a wave of criticism from many in the opposition, including Western-backed rebel groups, who said Washington was helping Assad by weakening some of his strongest opponents.
"We are tired of people saying they are coming to help us, and then they kill us," said Idlib-based activist Asaad Kanjo.
Several missiles also hit a compound belonging to the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham group in the village of Babiska, activists and members of the rebel group said. In a statement posted online, the group said its facilities were hit and "the victims were our people, including women and children." The strikes "serve only the criminal regime," it said.
Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative rebel groups that merged a year ago. The Islamic Front wants to create an Islamic state in Syria governed by Shariah law and rejects the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, but cooperates with some Western-backed rebel groups on the ground.
The U.S. military did not address the alleged strikes on Ahrar al-Sham, but a Pentagon spokesman said members of the Khorasan group may also be affiliated with other militant organizations.
"These strikes weren't specifically targeting any of those other organizations," Army Col. Steve Warren said. "They were targeting the Khorasan group. If a terrorist happens to be a member of both groups, so be it."
Babiska was home to one of the Western-backed rebels' main arms depots before it was seized last December by the Islamic Front, said Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website. It is located about a half mile (1 kilometer) from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which several rebel groups use to bring in military supplies and aid for Syrians.
Abu Abdul-Qader, an activist who witnessed the blasts in Babiska, said "the moment of the explosion turned the dark night into day."
He said six strikes targeted a facility widely known to belong to Ahrar al-Sham, leaving a crater 20-yards (meters) wide and seven yards deep. At least three men were killed, he said, and more were buried under the rubble. The structure was located next to a facility belonging to the Nusra Front, Abdul-Qader said.
He said the strikes killed four children and four fighters. The Britian-based Observatory reported that at least two children died. Conflicting death tolls following such strikes are common.
Some in the Syrian opposition have said it wasn't strategically wise to widen the scope of the U.S. strikes to include other rebel groups because it gives the impression the U.S. and its allies are siding with Assad's forces.
"Extremism is completely contradictory to the nation-building project we have," said a Syrian opposition official, Abdul-Basit Sieda.
But the bombings "are causing doubts among Syrians. ... Fighting terrorism must be part of a complete strategy, built on the basis that the (Assad) regime is the source of terrorism, and created it."
Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.