The United Nations security council has called an emergency meeting to discuss air strikes by the US-led coalition in Syria, diplomats said, after Russia said coalition warplanes had bombed and killed Syrian government forces.
The 15-member council was due to meet behind closed doors on Saturday evening in New York, diplomats told Reuters.
The US envoy to the United nations, Samantha Power, said she regretted loss of life in the Syria airstrike, but said the Russian call for the security council meeting was “a stunt”.
Earlier on Saturday Russia’s ministry of defense said coalition planes had killed 62 Syrian soldiers, wounded 100 more and allowed Islamic State militants to gain an advantage through the strike.
The Pentagon did not outright admit that coalition planes had hit Syrian forces, but said that pilots had “believed they were striking a Daesh [Isis] fighting position” and may have struck Syrian government forces instead.
The death toll could not immediately be confirmed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based group that has tracked casualties of the war, reported that about 80 Syrian soldiers were killed. The Russian defense ministry said more than 100 were injured.
In a statement, the ministry echoed questions from President Vladimir Putin about US commitment to a shaky ceasefire deal brokered by the two countries, and said the airstrikes could be evidence that American officials had not consulted with their counterparts in Moscow.
“If this airstrike was the result of a targeting error,” Russian major general Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, “it is a direct consequence of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its action against terrorist groups on Syrian territory with Russia.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, was subsequently quoted by Ria Novosti saying the Kremlin would demand an explanation at the UN.
“We are reaching a really terrifying conclusion for the whole world,” she said, according to the state-owned news agency. “The White House is defending Islamic State. Now there can be no doubts about that.
“We demand a full and detailed explanation from Washington. That explanation must be given at the UN Security Council.”
Konashenkov did not identify the planes’ country of origin, but said they were part of the US-led coalition. US central commmand (Centcom) said “Russian counterparts” had been consulted.
The Russian defense ministry said Isis militants were emboldened by the airstrikes, which hit an airport near Deir al-Zor, and that the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were now fighting a pitched battle against those of the terror group. It also said the strikes were conducted between 5pm and 5.30pm local time by two F-16s and A-10s that entered the country from the direction of Iraq.
SOHR said Russian warplanes had been bombing the same region recently, citing a source at the airport who also said Isis fighters had used the strike to overrun a government position.
Centcom acknowledged the strikes in a statement, saying: “Coalition forces believed they were striking an [Isis] fighting position that they had been tracking for a significant amount of time before the strike.”
The statement added: “The coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.”
Centcom said the coalition had struck the area in the past, and that its members had “earlier informed Russian counterparts of the upcoming strike”.
“It is not uncommon for the Coalition Air Operations Center to confer with Russian officials as a professional courtesy and to deconflict,” the command center said, “although such contact is not required by the current US-Russia Memorandum of Understanding on safety of flight.”
The statement added that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit” and that they would “review this strike and the circumstances surrounding it to see if any lessons can be learned”.
The US and Russia last week brokered a controversial ceasefire that made provisions for joint strikes on jihadi militants, even though the Kremlin stands accused of killing 2,000 civilians in six months of strikes.
Many Russian strikes have targeted US-backed groups that oppose Assad’s government, which is itself responsible for tens of thousands of civilians killed, many with chemical weapons, according to rights groups. The US says its bombing campaign has killed 55 civilians, though rights groups say at least 210 died in the battle for the city of Manbij alone.
Elements of the Syria pact have been resisted by leaders in the Pentagon, including defense secretary Ash Carter. State-owned Russian news agencies have quoted military officials as saying that Syrian rebels have violated the ceasefire agreement 55 times already. Rebels have alleged violations by Assad’s forces.
Aid shipments into the devastated city of Aleppo have yet to be allowed to reach civilians. More than 470,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war since 2011, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
On Saturday, Putin blamed ceasefire violations and the aid blockade on resistance from Washington, saying Americans “still cannot separate the so-called healthy part of the opposition from the half-criminal and terrorist elements.
“In my opinion, this comes from the desire to keep the combat potential in fighting the legitimate government of Bashar Assad. But this is a very dangerous route.”
Putin has supported Assad’s government since the start of the war with money, aid and arms, and, since last September, with airstrikes.
- Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report