US admits Syria airstrike that killed 46 but denies targeting mosque

AFP in Al-Jineh
Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, dig through the rubble of a mosque following an airstrike in the village of Al-Jineh late on Thursday. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

The US has said it carried out an airstrike in Syria against an al-Qaida meeting but denied deliberately targeting a mosque where 46 people were reportedly killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the dead were civilians in the Thursday evening raid on the village of Al-Jineh, in the northern province of Aleppo.

The US has been bombing jihadists in war-torn Syria as part of an international coalition since 2014, with hundreds of civilians unintentionally killed in the country and in neighbouring Iraq.

“We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about 50ft (15 metres) from a mosque that is still standing,” said Col John J Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command.

According to a Centcom statement: “US forces conducted an air strike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists.”

The Centcom spokesman later clarified that the precise location of the strike was unclear – but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province.

“We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he added.

The US-led coalition striking the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria did not mention the raid in its daily roundup for Thursday, indicating that the strike was carried out unilaterally by the US.

An AFP correspondent saw rescue workers in white helmets working under spotlights with picks and shovels late on Thursday to dig people out of the rubble.

Much of the building, identified by a black placard outside as a mosque, had been flattened.

The empty prayer hall was covered in debris, and rescue workers stepped through it carefully, deliberating about how to break down a wall to search for more survivors.

Fearing additional airstrikes, weekly Friday prayers were cancelled in towns and villages across northern Syria, AFP’s correspondent said.

Rescuers had earlier left the wreckage site but were forced to double back when they heard moaning coming from the rubble.

“More than 100 people were wounded,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said on Thursday, adding that many were still trapped under the collapsed mosque in Al-Jineh, just over 30km (20 miles) west of Aleppo.

The village is held by Islamist groups, but the Observatory said no jihadist factions are present.

Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he “heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it.

“I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognise some of the bodies,” he added.

The strike was condemned by the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which said targeting mosques was a war crime under international law.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests six years ago.

A ceasefire between government forces and non-jihadist rebel groups was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia in December, but violence has continued.

The skies over Aleppo province are busy, with Syrian regime and Russian warplanes as well as US-led coalition aircraft carrying out strikes.

Russia began a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and in the past has dismissed allegations of civilian deaths in its strikes.

The US-led coalition said earlier this month that its raids in Iraq and Syria had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians since 2014. Critics say the real number is much higher.

Israel has also carried out airstrikes elsewhere in Syria.

Before dawn on Friday, its warplanes hit several targets near the famed desert city of Palmyra, prompting retaliatory missiles launches, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war started in 2011.

The Syrian army said it had downed one Israeli plane and hit another but the Israeli military insisted the safety of its aircraft had not been compromised.

Israel said it intercepted one missile. Jordanian military sources said missile shrapnel struck in the north of the kingdom without causing any casualties.

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