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US hid an airstrike that killed 70 women, children in Syria in 2019: Report

Published: Updated:

The US military hid an airstrike in which it bombed a large crowd of women and children in Syria’s Baghuz town, killing dozens, during the last days of the battle against ISIS in 2019, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

On March 18, 2019, an American F-15E attack jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd huddled against a river bank, killing dozens. As survivors tried to scramble away, the jet dropped a 2,000 pound bomb, then another killing most of them.

An analyst at the US military’s Combined Air Operations Center at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar typed on a secure chat system: “We jet dropped on 50 women and children.”

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An initial assessment of the strike revealed that the death toll amount to 70.

The New York Times reported that “the Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against ISIS, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the US military”.

“A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. US-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified,” NYT said.

“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate, an evaluator who worked on the case for the inspector general’s office.

The NYT investigation found that bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria.

“The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions,” NYT reported.

This week, the US Central Command acknowledged that the strike killed 80 people, but said it was “justified”. It said “the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in ISIS sometimes took up arms.”

The NYT said its investigation of the Baghuz strike showed that the special operations task force skirted rules meant to protect civilians and the troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

CIA officers working in Syria alleged that in about 10 incidents, the task force hit targets knowing civilians would be killed, and raised concerns with the Department of Defense inspector general.

The inspector general investigated and determined that all the strikes were legal.

Staff in the operations center in Qatar also became concerned with task force strikes and Air Force lawyers starting tracking the self-defense justifications the task force used to call the strikes then comparing them with drone footage.

They found that “the task force was adding details that would legally justify a strike, such as seeing a man with a gun, even when those details were not visible in the footage”.

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