by Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamadee, McClatchy DC
Gaziantep, Turkey: A U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed at least 50 Syrian civilians late last month when it targeted a headquarters of Islamic State extremists in northern Syria, according to an eyewitness and a Syrian opposition human rights organization.
The civilians were being held in a makeshift jail in the town of Al Bab, close to the Turkish border, when the aircraft struck on the evening of Dec. 28, the witnesses said. The building, called the Al Saraya, a government center, was leveled in the airstrike. It was days before civil defense workers could dig out the victims’ bodies.
The U.S. Central Command, which had not previously announced the airstrike, confirmed the attack Saturday in response to repeated McClatchy inquiries. “Coalition aircraft did strike and destroy an ISIL headquarters building in Al Bab on Dec. 28,” Col. Patrick S. Ryder said in an email.
He said a review of the airstrike showed no evidence of civilian casualties but offered to examine any additional information, “since we take all allegations seriously.” ISIL is an alternative name for the Islamic State.
U.S. officials acknowledged for the first time last week that they are investigating “at least a few” claims of civilian casualties as a result of airstrikes on Syria. “This is something we always take seriously,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby. “We are very mindful of trying to mitigate the risk to civilians every time we operate, everywhere we operate.”
A subsequent email from Central Command to reporters said the Pentagon had received nine reports of civilian deaths in Syria and that determinations were still to be made in four of those. No details of the incidents were provided.
But the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent opposition group that tracks casualties in Syria, said it has documented the deaths of at least 40 civilians in airstrikes in the months between the start of U.S. bombing in Syria Sept. 23 through the Dec. 28 strike on Al Bab. The deaths include 13 people killed in Idlib province on the first day of the strikes. Other deaths include 23 civilians killed in the eastern province of Deir el Zour, two in Raqqa province and two more in Idlib province.
The issue of civilian deaths in U.S. strikes is a critical one as the United States hopes to win support from average Syrians for its campaign against the Islamic State. The deaths are seen by U.S.-allied moderate rebel commanders as one reason support for their movement has eroded in northern Syria while support for radical forces such as al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State has gained.
Rebel commanders say they have intelligence that could avoid civilian casualties, but that U.S. officials refuse to coordinate with them.
News of casualties from U.S. actions in Syria rarely seeps out from towns like Al Bab, which has a population of 150,000, because the Islamic State has been able to close it off by threatening to jail or even kill those reporting to the outside world.
The Central Command, on behalf of the Joint Task Force, generally issues reports of airstrikes on the day they occur, but for a while was publishing its reports only three days a week. The Al Bab strike was not included in any of the summaries, however, and Central Command confirmed it only after repeated inquiries from McClatchy.
Central Command spokesman Ryder said the failure to list the Dec. 28 airstrike was an administrative oversight.
McClatchy located two sources who confirmed a high civilian death toll from the strike. One witness, an activist in Al Bab, gave the death toll as 61 civilian prisoners and 13 Islamic State guards. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated the death toll at 80, and said 25 of those were Islamic State Guards and another 55 were either civilians or imprisoned fighters from non-Islamic State rebel groups.
Either number would make the Al Bab strike the single worst case of civilian deaths since the U.S. began bombing targets in Syria.
The witness in Al Bab, who asked to be called Abu Rabi’e for his own safety, said aircraft flew over the city at about 10 p.m. that night.
“A while later, I heard the sound of a massive explosion. The whole city shook,” said the witness. After the bombing, “there was shooting in the streets, and the Islamic State used loudspeakers to announce a curfew. The sound of ambulances could be heard all night.”
The next day, he discovered that the Saraya building, which the Islamic State police had turned into a prison, “had been leveled to the ground.”
He said some 35 of the prisoners had been jailed shortly before the airstrike for minor infractions of the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law, such as smoking, wearing jeans or appearing too late for the afternoon prayer.
Civil defense volunteers had to demand access to the site, and it took days to clear the rubble and extricate the bodies, he said. After they finished their work, they handed over the bodies of 50 prisoners to their families in Al Bab, nine to families in the nearby town of Bza’a, and one to a family from Ikhtrin. The Islamic State claimed the 13 bodies of its own guards, he said.
Huda al Ali, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Network, said its investigation had found that in addition to violators of Sharia law, the two-story building also was being used as a prison for fighters from groups opposed to the Islamic State.
“The missile was very powerful and destroyed the building completely,” said al Ali. “According to the information we gathered, 80 bodies were found after the strike, 25 of them are Islamic State fighters and the rest are prisoners.” More than half of those were believed to be civilians held for violations of Sharia.