Two top US officials say Russians bear responsibility for an airstrike that destroyed a UN humanitarian aid convoy near Syria’s Aleppo province on Monday.
US Air Force Colonel J.T. Thomas, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday that two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jets were in the skies at the precise time that the convoy came under attack. A ranking member is the second-most senior member of a congressional committee.
The officials added that this led American intelligence to conclude that Russia was behind the attack, in which some 20 civilians were killed and 18 trucks from a 31-vehicle convoy were destroyed.
An unnamed US military official told Washington-based The Hillnewspaper on Tuesday night that all of “the information we have is consistent with this being a Russian airstrike."
Moscow has denied that Russian or Syrian planes were involved in the incident. Earlier on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry released drone footage showing that militants were using the UN aid convoy as cover.
Referring to the monitoring drone footage, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov noted that a militant pickup truck with a large caliber mortar can be clearly seen in the footage.
However, US officials still insist the attack looks like the result of an airstrike rather than an attack from anti-government militants as the Russians have suggested.
"It does look like an airstrike. The only entities that fly in Syria right now are Russia and Syria. So this is, has been in the past, a strategic area for the Russians. They can speak for themselves on this, and we are interested to follow this just as you are," Colonel Thomas said at a news briefing.
"Whether this was the Russians or the regime, the Russians bear responsibility here. They are in Syria, they are backing the Assad regime, they are participating in his military campaign," the official added.
Meanwhile, Senator Cardin said if it was found out that the strike was carried out deliberately, "it would amount to a war crime."
"I call on the Russian Federation to fulfill the commitments it made in Geneva to ensure immediate, unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people," he said in a statement.
"Additionally, all parties to the conflict must adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes the protection of aid workers," he added.
The Monday attack comes two days after US-led airstrikes killed at least 62 Syrian soldiers in the Syrian city of Dayr al-Zawr, while surrounded by Takfiri militants in an airport.
According to De Mistura, more than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria, since it broke out in March 2011.