The U.S. Air Force confirmed Monday that its aircraft had bombed and destroyed a complex of buildings belonging to al Qaida’s Nusra Front affiliate, bringing to at least three the number of American airstrikes that have targets the terrorist group since bombing in Syria began last year.
The attack came one week after Nusra had defeated an American-backed Syrian rebel group and forced it to disband, capturing an unknown number of U.S.-supplied sophisticated anti-tank missiles.
Local and humanitarian sources said Sunday’s strike killed at least five Nusra militants. A 15-year-old boy, who apparently was working at the site, possibly tending livestock, also was killed, a resident of the nearby Atma camp for displaced Syrians told medical personnel in Turkey.
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Syria and Iraq, said U.S. fighters and bombers destroyed four terrorist compounds and three tents at what it described as a staging area for the Khorasan group, a designation the United States has given to a Nusra unit that it says is “plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies.”
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Centcom described the complex as 26 miles west of Aleppo. But local residents said the buildings were located in the town of Bab al Hawa across from the Turkish border town of Reyhanli and in fact housed the local headquarters for Nusra, which has seized most of the northern province of Idlib from moderate Syrian rebels in the past three months. Bab al Hawa once was the headquarters for the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command of moderate rebels.
Sunday’s airstrikes could be seen from the Atma camp less than a mile away, causing a fright among the residents, who number in the tens of thousands. Turkey closed the Bab al Hawa crossing, the principal gateway from Turkey to Syria, for all but humanitarian aid and foot traffic after the strike.
The attack came exactly seven days after the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm movement announced it was disbanding after coming under fierce attack from Nusra. Hazm had been receiving arms, training and funding under a covert U.S. program, which has now all but dried up for northern Syria.
Nusra captured a key Hazm base in Aleppo, known as Base 46, as well as a stock of weapons thought to include U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles.
The Central Command statement made no reference to Nusra’s triumph of a week ago or to the missing weapons, and it wasn’t clear from reports from the scene whether the complex of buildings housed a major weapons depot.
But the attack made clear that Nusra, which broke off from the Islamic State extremist group in mid-2013 and is now a rival in northern Syria, could be a more regular target for U.S. air attack.
An explosion last week killed a top Nusra military commander and three other commanders during a meeting at Salqin, also in the northwestern Idlib province. The circumstances of the blast are unclear. The Syrian government claimed it had bombed the location, as did moderate rebels who’ve been receiving U.S. and Arab aid. Militants linked to Nusra said it was a U.S. airstrike, but the Central Command said there were no bombings in the area that day.
The Khorasan group is named for a region of Pakistan where many Arab fighters trained under al Qaida auspices; it has been the target of U.S. airstrikes on at least two previous occasions, Sept. 23 and Nov. 6.
On both occasions, the target was reported by intelligence sources to be David Drugeon, a former truck driver from Brittany, France, who is reported to have trained with the French military before he joined al Qaida. He escaped with his life both times, but on the second occasion was wounded and taken to a hospital, a witness said. There was no indication that Drugeon was the target in Sunday’s airstrike.
Those two airstrikes unleashed a wave of public sympathy in northern Syria for Nusra, which moderate rebels had considered a key ally in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad before Nusra commanders turned on them and defeated them throughout Idlib province.
McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed from Antakya, Turkey.