BEIRUT — The U.S. military acknowledged Thursday its troops fired on and killed a Syrian combatant when government supporters attacked an American convoy in northeastern Syria a day earlier.
The clash Wednesday was a rare direct confrontation between a Syrian pro-government group and U.S. troops deployed in the increasingly crowded terrain near the border with Iraq and Turkey.
A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles drove into a government-controlled area and was attacked by pro-government supporters, including armed men who fired at the soldiers and pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Spokesman for the U.S-led coalition Col. Myles Caggins said the person killed was a combatant. He said the U.S. soldiers had come under fire and responded in self-defense. Syrian government media maintained the person killed was a civilian.
The U.S. maintains hundreds of troops in the area as part of its fight against Islamic State group militants. In recent weeks, and following a Turkish invasion of villages and towns along its borders, the area has been swarming with Russian, Syrian government and Turkish troops. They are deployed in part to maintain the peace but also in the latest tug over territorial control in Syria's 9-year-old conflict.
Caggins said the patrol was planned, and the route passed through a pro-government area. The convoy of U.S. armored vehicles passed through a Syrian military checkpoint, but government militia were also present.
The U.S. maintains lines of communication with Russia, Damascus's ally, to avoid such confrontations. It wasn't clear if the route was deconflicted.
Videos showed government supporters attacking the vehicles and a couple of men firing small arms at the convoy, which was flying the U.S. flag. Some residents pelted the convoy with stones, while another dumped a bucket full of dirt on the back of one vehicle.
U.S. soldiers were seen standing in the middle of the melee, trying to disperse the crowd. One U.S. vehicle was stuck in the dirt, apparently having veered into a ditch, while another had a flat tire.
“Despite U.S. troops' repeated de-escalation efforts, local militia members attacked U.S. troops with small arms weapons from multiple firing positions,” Caggins said. “Coalition forces always have the right to self-defense and fired back at armed aggressors killing one adult male combatant.”