BEIRUT (AP) — Airstrikes on Islamic State-held villages in northern Syria killed at least 56 civilians on Tuesday as intense fighting was underway between the militants and U.S-backed fighters, Syrian opposition activists and the extremist group said.
Residents in the area blamed the U.S.-led coalition for the strikes that targeted two villages, Tokhar and Hoshariyeh, which are controlled by IS, activists said. The villages are near the IS stronghold of Manbij, a town that members of the predominantly Kurdish U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces have been trying to capture in a weeks-long offensive.
The death toll from the airstrikes, which coincided with a wide ground offensive by the extremists against SDF fighters, ranged between 56 and 200. If it is confirmed that 200 people were killed, it would be the deadliest strike by the U.S.-led coalition since it began its military campaign against IS in Syria almost two years ago.
Conflicting numbers in the aftermath of attacks are not uncommon in Syria. There were also conflicting reports on where the civilians were killed, with some groups reporting that a school housing refugees was hit and others saying that people were struck as they fled the violence.
An international human rights group said the U.S.-led coalition, which has been carrying out airstrikes against IS in Syria since September 2014, must increase its efforts to prevent civilian deaths and investigate possible violations of international humanitarian law.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 56 civilians, including 11 children, were killed in the strikes on the villages, which also wounded dozens. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 90 people, mostly families, were killed.
In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that 120 civilians, mostly women, children and old people, had been killed in the airstrike on Tokhar village. It said the strike was conducted by French warplanes.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said that 160 civilians — mostly women and children — were killed in Tokhar alone, in a series of purportedly American airstrikes around dawn Tuesday, while a Facebook page for activists in the area put the death toll at more than 200.
The reports and the disparate casualty tolls could not be independently confirmed because the area is inaccessible to independent media. There was no immediate comment from Washington.
A spokesman for the U.S.-backed SDF, Sherfan Darwish, said the numbers are exaggerated, adding that the coalition targeted gatherings of the Islamic State group who were in the village, killing large numbers of militants. He added that the extremist group quickly buried its dead and claimed many civilians were killed.
Postings on a Facebook page show images of bodies, including those of children, being placed in a collective grave, purportedly in the village of Tokhar. One photograph shows a man carrying the lifeless body of a child covered with dust while another shows a child, partly covered by a blanket, lying in a grave.
The photographs appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted. Tuesday's casualties follow similar airstrikes on the IS-held town of Manbij on Monday, when at least 15 civilians were reportedly killed.
The London-based rights group, Amnesty International, said in a statement Tuesday that since June, more than 100 civilians have been reportedly killed in suspected attacks by the U.S.-led coalition in the Manbij area.
"There must be a prompt, independent and transparent investigation to determine what happened, who was responsible, and how to avoid further needless loss of civilian life," said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty, following the airstrikes on Tokhar.
"Anyone responsible for violations of international humanitarian law must be brought to justice and victims and their families should receive full reparation," Mughrabi said.
The statement said Amnesty International has reviewed available information on dozens of suspected coalition airstrikes and found that in the majority of cases in which civilian casualties have been credibly reported, the coalition has dismissed the claims.
It added that Amnesty International will be seeking clarification from the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, about a series of other airstrikes causing civilian casualties which appear to have violated international humanitarian law.
CENTCOM said the coalition conducted 18 strikes on Monday and destroyed 13 IS fighting positions, seven IS vehicles and two car bombs near Manbij.
The Manbij area has seen intense battles between IS extremists and the Kurdish-led fighters, who have been advancing under the cover of intense airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
If Manbij is captured by the U.S.-backed fighters, it will be the biggest strategic defeat for IS in Syria since July 2015, when the extremist group lost the border town of Tal Abyad. In neighboring Iraq, meanwhile, IS has been beaten back on several fronts, with Iraqi forces, aided by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, having retaken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Anbar province.