WASHINGTON: The US military has confirmed for the first time a 2019 air strike in Syria that killed up to 80 people, mostly women and children, but claimed the strike was justified as it killed Islamic State fighters who were attacking coalition forces.
The confirmation from US Central Command followed a report by the New York Times on Sunday in which former and current Pentagon officials alleged there had been a cover-up of a likely war crime. Central Command argued that because some women and children had taken up arms for IS, whether by indoctrination or choice, they “could not strictly be classified as civilians”.
The strike was carried out on 18 March 2019 on the town of Baghuz on the Euphrates River, which forms the Syrian-Iraq border, where Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with US air support, were besieging the last organised remnants of IS in Syria.
The Times report said two bombs were dropped on a crowd of women and children, trying to escape the fighting on the banks of the Euphrates, who had been identified as civilians by a US drone operated from Qatar. It said the drone operators in Al-Udeid airbase were stunned when they saw the first 500lb bomb dropped by a US F-15E plane, and then a second, 2,000lb bomb dropped on the survivors.
“Who dropped that?” one analyst asked on a chat system used by those monitoring the drone footage, according to the report. Within minutes, a legal officer flagged a possible war crime that required investigation, and ordered the drone footage and other evidence. The initial battle damage assessment put the death toll at 70. But no independent inquiry was ever carried out.
The air force lawyer, Lt Col Dean Korsak, took the case to the Pentagon inspector general, but the subsequent report was stripped of any mention of the strike. Korsak subsequently sent details of the incident to the Senate armed services committee.
“I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this,” Korsak wrote to the committee, in emails obtained by the Times. “Senior ranking US military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process.”
Meanwhile, the US Central Command said on Sunday that a 2019 airstrike that killed civilians in Syria was “legitimate,” after a New York Times investigation said the military had concealed the death of some 70 non-combatants.
The New York Times published the results of its investigation on Saturday saying a US special task force operating in Syria — sometimes leaving its military partners in the dark to preserve secrecy — dropped three bombs on a cluster of civilians near the Islamic State group bastion of Baghouz, killing 70 people, mainly women and children. The report says a US legal officer “flagged the strike as a possible war crime” but that “at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike.”
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