The U.S. military killed dozens of al Qaida militants in a strike in northern Syria, the Pentagon said Friday, but it denied local reports that a mosque had been struck and dozens of civilians killed.
“We are not aware of any credible assessment of civilian casualties,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the strike had hit a mosque that was crowded for evening prayers, killing at least 42 people, mostly civilians.
“The mosque is still standing and relatively unscathed,” Davis countered.
The Pentagon released a black-and-white photo to reporters Friday showing the site in Jinah after the strike Thursday night. It shows a small mosque still standing, seemingly undamaged, while the targeted building lies in rubble. The military says it targeted the place where al Qaida senior leaders were meeting and “deliberately did not target the mosque” across the street.
“We had tracked this building for some time. We know it was being used by al Qaida,” Davis said.
The area “was extensively surveilled prior to the strike in order to minimize civilian casualties. . . . We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaida terrorists were killed,” he said.
Video footage from the scene showed rescue workers in white helmets digging people out of the rubble Thursday night under spotlights.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed 220 civilians since operations began in 2014, according to the latest Pentagon estimate, released earlier this month. Monitoring groups say the number is much higher. Airwars, an independent, Britain-based group, says that at least 2,462 civilians have been killed in these strikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 320,000 people have died in six years of conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad.