Claims of civil­ian deaths rise in Syria

U.S. drone at­tacks tar­geted al-Qaida ter­ror­ists in Aleppo.

Austin American-Statesman - - NEWS - By Louisa Loveluck and Thomas Gib­bons-Neff Wash­ing­ton Post

The Unit­edS­tates BEIRUT — said Fri­day that an airstrike tar­geted al-Qaida mil­i­tants in Syria, but res­i­dents charged that the pow­er­ful at­tack killed scores of civil­ians in a nearby mosque.

A Pen­tagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the United States be­lieves that the strike late Thurs­day killed “dozens” of mem­bers of the ter­ror­ist group. Sepa- rately, a U.S. of­fi­cial in­sisted the raid was based on ver­i­fied hu­man in­tel­li­gence, tar­get- ing al-Qaida group­sthat had gath­ered to dis­cuss fu­ture op­er­a­tions.

But lo­cal ac­tivists and a mon­i­tor­ing group said the airstrike hit a mosque in the western Aleppo coun­try­side dur­ing a re­li­gious gath­er­ing, killing at least 46 peo- ple and trap­ping more un­der the rub­ble.

Reached by phone, resi- dents in the town of Ji­nah de­scribed a se­ries of blasts that shook the ground and sent civil­ians flee­ing from the site, many of them dazed and bleed­ing.

The United States has struck dozens of lo­ca­tions in north­west­ern Syria, where an al-Qaida-linked al­liance of rebel groups known as Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, is now the as­cen­dent force. The area is also home to an as­sort­ment of other rebel groups, as well as hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians.

Thurs­day’s at­tack in­volved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hell­fire mis­siles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb, the U.S. of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­tel­li­gence mat­ters.

Three res­i­dents said at least 200 peo­ple were in the mosque and a nearby build­ing for re­li­gious teach­ing ses­sions at the time of the U.S. at­tack.

“The mosque in al-Ji­nah was de­stroyed. Bod­ies filled the space,” said Mo­hamed al-Shaghal, a jour­nal­ist who ar­rived at the scene shortly after the at­tack.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor­ing net­work, de­scribed that it called the “mas­sacre” and said the dead were mostly civil­ians. Pho­to­graphs from the area showed res­cue work­ers pulling man­gled bod­ies from a mound of rub­ble.

Aerial im­agery ap­peared to con­firm that much of the north­ern sec­tion of Ji­nah’s mosque was de­stroyed, al­though it was un­clear whether the strike was a di­rect one.

The U.S. of­fi­cial said the at­tack in­cluded a fol­low-up airstrike. Mo­hamed Shak­ourdi, a lo­cal ac­tivist, said it came as peo­ple streamed out of the mosque.

“They were run­ning as a fourth rocket hit,” he said.

“Whether U.S. drones di­rectly tar­geted the mosque at al-Ji­nah as some al­lege — or it was in­stead caught up in a U.S. drone strike in the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity — a sig­nif­i­cant number of civil­ians died at the scene, ac­cord­ing to the White Hel­mets, lo­cal me­dia and ca­su­alty mon­i­tors,” said Chris Woods, di­rec­tor of Air­wars, a Bri­tain-based group that tracks al­le­ga­tions of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

“Min­i­miz­ing harm to non­com­bat­ants on the bat­tle­field needs to re­main a cen­tral pri­or­ity, not an af­ter­thought,” said Woods.

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