Paris, France (BBN)-France bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday night, its most aggressive strike against the Islamic State group it blames for killing 129 people in a string of terrorist attacks across Paris only two days before.
President François Hollande, who vowed to be “unforgiving with the barbarians” of the Islamic State after the carnage in Paris, decided on the airstrikes in a meeting with his national security team on Saturday, officials said, reports The New York Times.
While France has been conducting scores of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, it had been bombing inside Syria only sparingly, wary of inadvertently strengthening the hand of President Bashar al-Assad by killing his enemies.
But after militants with AK-47 rifles and suicide explosives vests shattered the peaceful revelry of Paris on Friday night, killing dozens of civilians in restaurants and at a concert hall, France seemed intent on sending a clear message of its determination to curb the Islamic State and its ability to carry out attacks outside the territory it controls.
The French Defense Ministry said in a statement that the air raid, coordinated with American forces, was led by 12 French aircraft, including 10 fighter jets, and had destroyed two Islamic State targets in Raqqa, the radical group’s self-proclaimed capital.
The United States provided French officials with information to help them strike Islamic State targets in Syria, known as “strike packages,” American officials said.
Initial reports from activists on the ground in Raqqa, which could not be verified independently, said that hospitals had not reported any civilian casualties.
Yet they also said the targeted sites included clinics, a museum and other buildings in an urban area, leaving the full extent of the damage unknown.
The French military response capped another tense day in the wake of the attacks across Paris on Friday night.
The authorities hunted for an eighth suspect believed to be on the loose, while seeking to piece together how the assailants got the training, weapons and explosives they used.
President Obama and other world leaders, including President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, gathered at a summit meeting in Turkey, grappling with how to respond to the Islamic State, the civil war in Syria and the mass emigration from the region toward Europe.
Paris remained jittery all day, and early in the evening unfounded reports of gunfire prompted an evacuation of the Place de la Republic, in the heart of the city.
The revelations that at least four French citizens were involved in the attacks- three brothers and a man who lived around Chartres, about 60 miles southwest of Paris- seemed certain to exacerbate longstanding fears in France about the place of Muslim immigrants and converts in French society.
Even before the latest violence, the nation was still reeling from a smaller set of deadly attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, at a kosher grocery and against a police officer only 10 months earlier.
The French airstrikes on Raqqa began at 7:50pm Paris time, first taking aim at an Islamic State “command post, jihadist recruitment center and weapons and ammunition depot,” the Defense Ministry said.
The second target, it said, was a “terrorist training camp.”
Warplanes continued to hover over the city close to midnight, according to residents and activist groups. Residents have seen the city bombed by Syrian, American and Russian warplanes.
They have been terrorized by public executions by the Islamic State.
Now they are wary of yet another power arriving to pummel the city.
Khaled al-Homsi, an antigovernment activist from Palmyra, who uses a nom de guerre for his safety and is the nephew of an archaeologist who was beheaded by Islamic State fighters, issued a plea on Twitter to France, saying not all of the city’s residents were Islamic State members and urging caution for the safety of civilians.
“To the people & government in #France, #Raqqa City residents are not all #ISIS,” he wrote in a post on Twitter. “Please do not targets at random.”
Reports on the strikes began flowing from the Raqqa area about 9:30pm local time, with activists on the ground counting six at first, the numbers mounting minute by minute.
It was a heavier barrage than had typically hit the city and its environs, and it knocked out electricity and water service, spreading more fear than usual among civilians.
The reports were shared by several activist networks, including Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an organization of current and former Raqqa residents who report on events there.
The group was recently victimized by a provocative crime: the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for beheading two members of the activist group in Turkey, a move that was surprising in that it was carried out beyond the territory the Islamic State controls.
The Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner over Egypt, killing all 224 people aboard, intensifying concerns that the group’s reach and ambitions for sowing terror are expanding.
France has been among the most outspoken opponents of Mr. Assad. In 2013, it was prepared to join the United States in attacking his government after proof emerged that he was using chemical weapons against his own people.
When President Obama decided against attacking Assad, France suspended its plans.
Hollande’s government began bombing Islamic State-held territory in Iraq in September 2014, and it has carried out about 280 airstrikes since then.
But it had only begun to strike targets inside Syria in the last seven weeks, and had carried out fewer than a half dozen bombings there before Sunday. France has struck training camps, and just last week it attacked an oil and gas depot, according to a statement by the French Defense Ministry.
Jean Yves le Drian, the French defense minister, in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche, said the oil and gas target was chosen because the Islamic State uses the black market sale of oil and gas as a way to finance its weapon acquisition.
There is a growing focus on both reducing the Islamic State’s territory and its financing, said French government officials and experts.
“We need to push the organization away from its territories,” said Jean Charles Brisard, a terrorism expert, who worked in the French government and now is the chairman for the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris-based research group.
“Most of its resources are from the territory, so we have to push it away from its resources in Syria and Iraq and that means going in on the ground with a regional power,” he said.
The United States currently has soldiers on the ground in Iraq working with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to dislodge the Islamic State. France has not yet said whether it will adopt a similar course.
On Sunday, Hollande met his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the Élysée Palace. Afterward, Sarkozy urged decisive action against the Islamic State- a position Hollande has also taken.
“We need everybody in order to exterminate Daesh,” Sarkozy told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Sarkozy, who has been known to be tough on immigrants during his tenure as president, cautioned against linking the refugee crisis with the terrorist attacks, but added: “We need, together, to rein in the wave of migration ensuing from the Syrian situation.”