US probing 2 airstrikes alleged to have killed civilians

AP News
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Posted: Jan 06, 2015 6:24 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military disclosed Tuesday that it is investigating alleged civilian casualties from two airstrikes in Syria and Iraq last year, and that it has dismissed 13 other allegations of civilian casualties from airstrikes.

Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said the command has considered 18 separate allegations that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes killed or wounded civilians between Aug. 8, 2014, when the U.S. launched its air campaign against the Islamic State Group in Iraq, and Dec. 30.

Thirteen allegations were deemed unfounded — five involving airstrikes in Syria and eight in Iraq, he said. Of the five other allegations, three are still being assessed by Central Command and two are under active investigation.

Ryder provided few details about the two cases under investigation. He said they involved a total of "fewer than five" alleged civilian casualties and said one incident occurred in Iraq and the other in Syria. He did not provide the dates of the two strikes but said both happened in late December.

"We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and we apply very rigorous standards in our targeting process to prevent civilian casualties in the first place," Ryder said.

The fact that Central Command was investigating allegations of civilian casualties from its bombing campaign was first disclosed by the Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby. Ryder later provided a lengthy written statement that revealed the number of allegations, the number of cases under active investigation and information about the investigative process.

Less than a month ago, Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the top commander of the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, told reporters his organization is extremely careful and deliberate about its targeting.

"We have some great capability in terms of precision," Terry said on Dec. 18, speaking of airstrikes in Iraq and efforts to avoid hitting either civilians or friendly Iraqi forces. "To date, we've got a very good record. I am tracking no civilian casualties."

Ryder said the two cases being investigated arose after Terry spoke, and they emerged from internal reviews of airstrikes, "not the result of allegations received from outside" the Defense Department. He did not say where the other allegations came from but mentioned that "allegations come from various sources," including media reports, private organizations and U.S. government agencies such as the State Department. He said allegations are reviewed "regardless of the source."

Ryder did not explain in detail why 13 of the 18 allegations were determined to be not credible. He said a source is generally deemed credible if it provides verifiable information such as photographs or other documentation.

"An example of non-credible information is a general accusation made without any corroborating information that civilian casualties occurred," Ryder said.

He said that with each allegation, Central Command reviews information that is "readily available," including information from third parties and information such as the proximity of the alleged casualties to an airstrike.

"The current environment on the ground in Iraq and Syria makes investigating these allegations extremely challenging," he said. "Traditional investigatory methods, such as interviewing witnesses and examining the site, are not typically available."

The U.S. has no troops on the ground in Syria, and it has only a limited number of troops in Iraq. The U.S. has been joined in airstrikes in Syria by Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes in Iraq includes Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Britain.

The air campaign in Syria is aimed mainly at weakening the Islamic State's ability to conduct and sustain military operations in Iraq, where it controls key portions of the country's north and west.

Kirby said Tuesday that the long-awaited coalition program to train the Syrian moderate opposition could begin by early spring.

The effort to train Syrian rebels is part of the overall campaign to defeat the Islamic State militants who seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Kirby said that once the training program gets up and running it may require additional U.S. forces to assist with the instruction. He did not provide details on how many. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have agreed to provide training locations.

The U.S. is involved in a plan to train both moderate Syria rebels and to train and assist Iraqi security forces in order to beat back the Islamic State militants' rampage in both countries.

Kirby said Islamic State momentum in Iraq has stalled and its fighters have largely been in a defensive posture for several weeks.

"Whatever momentum they had been enjoying has been halted, has been blunted. That has stayed steady over the last couple of weeks," Kirby said. "It's very much a contested environment, but what we don't see, what we haven't seen in the last several weeks has been any renewed offensive moves."