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The Pentagon (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military watched an armed group in eastern Syria for at least two days before launching an airstrike on Saturday that was halted after Russia reported the attack hit Syrian regime forces, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Tuesday.

The Pentagon has launched a formal investigation into the incident to determine who was attacked near Deir al-Zour, Air Force Col. John Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon.

“We did take a couple of days to look at it, to develop the target, and then the decision was made … that it was a good target after looking at all the intelligence and considering that,” Thomas said. “The decision was not made on the spur of the moment.”

It was not immediately clear Tuesday how long the investigation would take. Thomas said lessons learned from the investigation would be added to the coalition’s future planning and operations.

The Russian Defense Ministry blamed the strike for killing 62 Syrians.

Thomas said coalition aircraft, including American jets, hit the target with “a good number of strikes” for about 30 to 50 minutes before the Russian military informed the coalition that it was bombing Syrian military. The assault was immediately called off after the call from the Russians, Thomas said.

The coalition regularly communicates with the Russian military to avoid mishaps in the air over Syria, but the United States and Russia have no formal military relationship and do not work together on any operations.

Thomas expressed some skepticism that the strike hit Syrian regime forces. The officers in charge of the strike were certain they were targeting Islamic State group fighters, who have long been in the area, he said.

“In this case, our best indications are that that (targeting) process was followed properly,” Thomas said.

On Saturday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said the coalition informed Russia before the strike that it would be operating in the area. He added if the strike did hit Syrian forces that the coalition regretted its mistake.

“We never have struck (Syrian) regime targets during this conflict,” Thomas said Tuesday. “We wouldn’t, we didn’t intend to at the time, and we won’t in the future.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have been engaged in civil war for more than five years against various rebel groups throughout the country and has often been accused of bombing civilians. Russian aircraft are also operating in Syria where they have claimed they are attacking terrorist groups including the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, but it has primarily worked to prop up the Syrian regime in its fight. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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