U.S. Denies Striking Syrian Mosque; Dozens Reported Killed

U.S. forces struck an al-Qaeda meeting in the Syrian province of Idlib, killing several suspected terrorists, and are investigating reports that civilians were killed or injured in a nearby mosque, military officials told NBC News on Thursday night.

The officials made the comments after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a nonpartisan group based in Britain that catalogs military actions in Syria, said at least 42 people were killed in an airstrike on a mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinnah southwest of Atareb, which is in the western countryside of the neighboring province of Aleppo.

The observatory said it wasn't known which side launched the attack. A senior U.S. military official told NBC News that the United States has photographic evidence that a mosque about 50 feet from the target of the U.S. attack was not hit and was still standing.

Few other details were immediately available — including whether the U.S. officials and the human rights observatory were even discussing the same attack.

The conflicting reports come one day after at least 25 people were killed in a suicide bombing at the main court complex in Syria's capital, Damascus, on the sixth anniversary of the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

U.N. investigators reported early this month that both sides in Syria's civil war committed repeated war crimes during the battle for Aleppo last year.

The Syrian and Russian militaries have carried out many air strikes in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The United States has also carried out strikes there in recent months, targeting a rebel group that until last year was an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

NBC News reported Tuesday that the Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to make it easier for the CIA and the military to target terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.

The plan is part of a broad policy shift to grant the CIA and the military more autonomy to target and kill al Qaeda and ISIS militants without presidential authorization in Syria and other countries, U.S. officials said.

© Civil defense team members try to rescue people trapped under the debris of a mosque after an aerial... Air attack kills civilians in Aleppo mosque

US military confirms Syria bombing, denies mosque was hit

The US military has said it conducted airstrikes in a northern Syria location where local reports say a mosque was struck and more than 40 people died, but the military denies it bombed a place of worship.

Instead, a US military official said, Thursday's airstrike along the border of Idlib and Aleppo provinces struck a building believed to be hosting an al Qaeda meeting near a mosque.

That building was 40 to 50 feet from the mosque, but recent satellite imagery shows the mosque still is standing, the official said.

News about the airstrike emerged from local reports, via the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, saying warplanes bombed a mosque in the village of al-Jena, killing at least 42 people and injuring dozens of others.
Most of those killed were civilians, the observatory said.

The group, which did not say whose warplanes conducted the strike, said search and rescue efforts were ongoing and told CNN the death toll was expected to rise because dozens of people remained under rubble.

The attack was also documented by the Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, which seemed to corroborate that the strike hit a mosque in the village. The volunteer emergency medical service posted video of what it says shows its rescue operation amid the ruins of the mosque.

The US military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that American planes conducted an airstrike in the area in question.

The building struck was not a mosque and was not being used as one, the official said. The strike is believed to have destroyed half that building, where al Qaeda militants were thought to be meeting inside, the official said.

The airstrike killed "several terrorists," the US military said in a statement Thursday.

US Central Command to investigate
US Central Command will look into any allegations of civilian casualties in the area, the official said.

Idlib has been a significant safe haven for al Qaeda in recent years, the official added.

In January, a strike destroyed an al Qaeda camp, where more than 100 fighters were being trained in terror tactics. Earlier reports suggested that airstrike killed as many as 300 people.

The United States has targeted al Qaeda fighters in Syria in past strikes. The Pentagon said 10 al Qaeda operatives were killed near Idlib in February. A US senior defense official told CNN an unmanned drone carried out that strike.

US airstrikes have hit civilian facilities before. In 2015, a US airstrike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people.

US admits Syria airstrike that killed 46 but denies targeting mosque

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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