Witnesses: US-Led Strike on ISIS Jail Killed More Than 50 Civilians

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Witnesses: US-Led Strike on ISIS Jail Killed More Than 50 Civilians

McClatchy report sheds light on alleged mass bombing of non-combatants by US-allied forces

Syrian Kurdish refugees cross the border into Turkey after fleeing fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS militants around the city of Kobani in north-east Syria September 2014. (Photo: UNHCR / I. Prickett)

A bombing by U.S.-led forces of a detention facility inside Syria that took place last month may have killed 50 or more civilians held inside, new reporting reveals. If the testimony of witnesses is accurate, the incident would represent the most deadly allied attack on non-combatants since the coalition began launching airstrikes against targets inside Syria last year.

The strike in question took place on December 28, 2014, hitting a makeshift jail controlled by ISIS militants in the town of Al Bab, McClatchy reported Sunday. The building was completely destroyed in the bombing, and it took "days" before the civil defense workers could retrieve the bodies, according to journalists Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamadee.

"McClatchy located two sources who confirmed a high civilian death toll from the strike," states the article. "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."

According to witnesses, people killed included civilians accused of violating ISIS's brutal interpretation of Sharia law, as well as people accused of opposing ISIS.

Despite publishing semi-regular reports on U.S.-led strikes inside Syria, U.S. Central Command had never previously acknowledged this airstrike or made any reference to the possibility of civilians being killed. Responding to inquiries from McClatchy, however, Col. Patrick S. Ryder for the first time confirmed that "Coalition aircraft did strike and destroy an ISIL headquarters building in Al Bab on Dec. 28." 

While Ryder initially told the journalists he was unaware of civilian casualties related to the strike, 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." It was not clear if the bombing of Al Bab was among the incidents under review.

Journalist Chris Woods, who has reported extensively on civilian deaths related to U.S. airstrikes across the region, responded to McClatchy's revelations by tweeting:

The U.S. military, to date, has not publicly released information detailing civilian casualties as a result of the U.S.-led war on ISIS, despite numerous reports that non-combatants in Iraq and Syria have been killed and wounded by U.S.-led strikes, which now number over 1,700, including at least 789 in Syria. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby revealed last week that Central Command is investigating a handful of "credible allegations of possible civilian casualties" in the U.S.-led war but has not released any further confirmation.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 52 civilians, including eight children, were killed by "coalition air strikes on oil fields and refineries in al-Hasakah and Der-Ezzor countrysides, al-Raqqa, Around Menbej northeast of Aleppo, and Idlib countryside" between September 23 and December 23. This number does not include the December 28 attack in Al Bab.

Iraq Body Count reports that, in 2014 in Iraq, "118 civilians were reported killed by US-Coalition air strikes, the first time since 2011 that civilian deaths have been directly attributable to US-Coalition actions."

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