A new report from a Syrian human rights group Wednesday accused the United States of killing dozens of civilians in airstrikes last week in northern Syria.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that at least 64 people, including 31 children, had been killed last Thursday when U.S. aircraft fired at least nine missiles over 30 minutes at the village of Bir Mahalli, which is about 33 miles south of Kobani, the border town that was the scene last year of a months-long bombing campaign against the Islamic State.
Syrian opposition activists reported the civilian deaths last week, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting at least 55 deaths and activists saying the toll was much higher. McClatchy obtained a list of 10 families that were said to have lost a total of 64 members.
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees American bombing in Syria, initially said it couldn’t confirm that Bir Mahalli had been a target last Thursday. But a spokesman acknowledged in an email earlier this week that aircraft had attacked the village, which is home to about 1,000 people.
The spokesman, Army Maj. Curtis Kellogg, denied that civilians had been killed in the assault, however.
“U.S. Central Command can confirm that coalition forces conducted airstrikes in the vicinity of Birmehli . . . on April 30,” he said, using an alternate spelling for the village. He said the attack had destroyed several Islamic State fighting positions and struck more than 50 Islamic State fighters.
“We currently have no indication that any civilians were killed in these strikes,” he added.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, however, reported that in addition to the 31 children killed in the strike, the U.S. missile barrage killed 19 women and wounded more than 30. It said that an unknown number of dead were thought to still be buried under the debris of the clay country cottages that are typical of the area.
“Most of the villagers left the village after the massacre,” the report said.
Fadel Abdulghani, the head of the group, said in a statement that “the latest incident shows more carelessness when it comes to the lives of the innocents.”
The network has accused the U.S. of killing civilians before, charging in a report in March that airstrikes had killed at least 100 civilians since the U.S. began bombing Syria last September.
Wednesday’s report provided new details of allegations that the airstrikes on Bir Mahalli were part of a battle between Arab and Kurdish residents that’s part of the toxic ethnic brew driving the conflict in Syria.
An activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for his safety, told McClatchy last week that he suspected that members of the local Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG in the Kurdish language, which had worked closely with the U.S. during the fight for Kobani, had intentionally called in the strike to drive away Arab residents.
In his comments this week, Kellogg, the Centcom spokesman, acknowledged a Kurdish role.
“Prior to the airstrikes, Kurdish forces, who held the town before leaving after being attacked by ISIL, reported there were no civilians present in that location and that there had not been any civilians present for two weeks prior to the coalition airstrikes,” Kellogg said. ISIL is the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said residents of the village had told its investigators that YPG units had been monitoring the village from a nearby hill. When two fuel trucks entered the town, the network said residents had reported, the YPG opened fire with tracer rounds. When villagers gathered to aid those wounded by the YPG fire, coalition aircraft fired missiles.
A journalist from the area, who spoke by Skype to McClatchy only under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said tensions between Kurdish and Arab populations were high.
“The Kurdish forces are pressing the Arabs in the area to leave,” the journalist said. He called the missile strikes “a systematic expulsion in an indirect way.”
Centcom spokesman Kellogg said the U.S. took allegations of civilian casualties seriously.
“We have significant mitigation measures in place within the targeting process and during the conduct of operations to reduce the potential risks of collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “We work extremely hard to be precise in the application of our airstrikes and take all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously.”