(Reuters) A U.S. military investigator said on Wednesday that a March 16 air strike near Aleppo, Syria was a valid and legal attack on a meeting of al Qaeda fighters and did not kill dozens of civilians as reported by human rights groups.
An investigation of the attack on a building in Al-Jina village was able to identify only one person who might have been a civilian who was wounded or possibly killed, Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director for operations for U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing by telephone.
“We considered media reports that indicated a large number of civilians were killed, but our investigation did not uncover evidence to support those claims,” said Bontrager, who acknowledged investigators were unable to visit the scene or talk to anybody who was on the ground at the time.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, had said at least 49 people were killed and dozens wounded, which the Pentagon denied at the time.
The group identified the building as a mosque and said it was filled with worshippers. The Pentagon released photos showing the mosque still standing. Bontrager said investigators did not speak to the Observatory but did seriously consider a report by Human Rights Watch.
Bontrager said the structure had a religious purpose but was not a mosque. He said the strike was carried out after several days of intelligence indicated that al Qaeda leaders and fighters were planning to meet in the building in Al-Jina, which is in an area controlled by the militant group.
The U.S. was not aware of large numbers of civilians being treated in hospitals after the strike, Bontrager said.
“We are confident this was a meeting of al Qaeda leaders and members. This was not a meeting of civilians,” he said.
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The investigation found “the strike complied with operational and legal requirements,” Bontrager said.
The United States military has said it makes “extraordinary efforts” to avoid civilian deaths in its air strikes in Syria and Iraq, parts of which are controlled by Islamist militants.
Bontrager said F-15 Strike Eagle aircraft and an MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft were involved in the attack, with the F-15 dropping 10 bombs on the building and the drone firing two missiles at a target that emerged outside.
He said adjacent structures suffered superficial damage and the investigators could not be sure exactly how many people were killed. Bontrager said that “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting were killed in the strike, with several injured.”