BEIRUT (AP) — U.S. aircraft fired missiles at al-Qaida militants in Syria for a third time as part of the international campaign against Islamic extremists, American officials and a Syrian activist said.
American defense officials said the strike took place Thursday and targeted the Khorasan group, which the U.S. says is a special cell within al-Qaida's Syrian branch — known as the Nusra Front — plotting attacks against Western interests. The officials did not provide any details, and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Later Friday, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement that a U.S. airstrike "struck terrorists associated with a network of veteran al-Qaida operatives, sometimes called the "Khorasan Group," who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies. CENTCOM said the airstrike was conducted in northwest Syria west of Aleppo province.
Syrian activist Asaad Kanjo said the attack occurred near the town of Harem in Syria's northwestern Idlib province near the Turkish border. He said residents reported seeing a drone fire two missiles that struck a Nusra Front base, killing at least two people.
It was the third time the U.S. has bombed the Nusra Front since the American-led coalition began conducting airstrikes in Syria in September against the Islamic State group and other extremists. The U.S. military says the attacks that have hit the Nusra Front have only targeted the Khorasan group, and not hit the wider Nusra organization.
Inside Syria, however, activists and rebels dismiss the U.S. attempt to distinguish between the Khorasan group and Nusra, saying they are one entity. Many analysts also question the distinction.
The strikes against the Nusra Front have touched off a wave of criticism among many in Syria. While the group is considered a terrorist organization 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 President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria's 3 ½-year civil war.
Many Syrians also say the strikes against Nusra are helping Assad by weakening one of his strongest opponents.
The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer said at the end of a three-day visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus that parties in the Syrian conflict must do more to protect civilians, including health care providers and detainees.
"Safe access to health care, restoration of contact between members of families separated by the conflict, issues related to detention, and the need for all parties to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law: these are urgent concerns for all Syrians, regardless of where they live, and I addressed them during my talks," Maurer said in a statement.
The ICRC statement said that during his visit to Damascus, Maurer met with a number of Syrian officials, including the ministers for foreign affairs, interior, national reconciliation affairs, social affairs and health to discuss concrete ways for the ICRC to broaden its humanitarian response, already significant, throughout the country.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.