The Pentagon and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq acknowledged on Friday that they were investigating a suspected airstrike that may have killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians in an ISIS-held part of Mosul.
Col. Joseph Scrocca, a US spokesman based in Baghdad, told the Los Angeles Times that officials are looking into multiple allegations of a strike in the area sometime between March 17 and 23.
One resident said a strike hit a residential area on March 13, followed by another four days later, according to Fox News.
“We are aware of reports on airstrikes in Mosul resulting in civilian casualties,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, told Fox News in a statement. “The Coalition conducted several strikes near Mosul and [coalition forces are] looking in to these reports. The Department of Defence takes all reports of civilian casualties very seriously and assesses all incidents as thoroughly as possible.”
The US-led coalition, made up of more than 60 countries, said it had “opened a formal civilian casualty credibility assessment on this allegation,” in a statement given to the AP.
Estimates of the death toll vary, though most put the body count above 100.
Brig. Muhammad al-Jabouri, an Iraqi civil-defence chief, said on March 23 that 108 bodies had been recovered after a March 22 explosion in the Mosul al-Jadida district, the site of heavy urban fighting between ISIS and Iraqi forces. He said the blast was the result of an ISIS booby trap, however.
“Finding survivors is very difficult because the area is completely destroyed,” he told reporters. “It’s a very big disaster, indeed we can describe it as a disaster.”
Mosul Eye, reportedly a Mosul resident who has documented life there under ISIS, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that 130 people were killed, women and children among them.
“Over 137 people were inside. The entire neighbourhood was fleeing because of missiles that hit, so people were taking refuge here,” said Ahmed Ahmed, a resident of the neighbourhood, according to Fox News.
Witnesses cited by The Telegraph said some 230 bodies, mostly women and children, had been recovered from the rubble of three adjoining houses overnight from Wednesday into Thursday.
The UN appeared to confirm a large loss of life in a statement issued Friday.
“We are stunned by this terrible loss of life and wish to express our deepest condolences to the many families who have reportedly been impacted by this strategy,” Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said.
Witnesses and civil-defence workers who were at the scene told the LA Times that the airstrike came in response to fighters on the ground who fired on aircraft.
According to Mosul Eye, the fighters left two car bombs outside the buildings, one of which was hit by a bomb dropped by an unidentified plane. The resulting explosion also detonated the other car bomb. A local lawmaker told Reuters that a coalition strike targeted a truck bomb parked near houses.
US officials, speaking anonymously, told the LA Times that the investigation initially suggested that a fuel truck may have accidentally been hit, leading to a huge explosion.
Iraqi officials are also looking into the blast.
Iraqi forces and their partners kicked off operations against ISIS in western Mosul on February 19.
In recent days, as their advance entered western Mosul’s Old City, progress has bogged down and fighting has intensified.
The close-quarters of homes and neighbourhoods in that part of the city have enable ISIS fighters to mount a fierce resistance, and as result, Iraqi forces and allies on the ground have relied more and more on bombardment from the ground and air.
The US-led coalition has reportedly loosened its rules of engagement in recent weeks, allowing advisers on the ground near the front to have more direct control over airstrikes. Coalition aircraft are reportedly loitering in the air above the city, waiting to drop their bombs.
The Pentagon has admitted several hundred civilians have been killed during the campaign against ISIS in in Iraq and Syria, which started in mid-2014.
Other reports put the death toll much higher. Airwars has said that a little more than 2,700 civilians had been killed by coalition strikes over that period.
As many as 3,864 Iraqi civilians had been slain since the start of operations against western Mosul, an Iraqi army source told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.
“Those who have fled the combat areas are reporting high civilian casualties,” Army Brig. Gen. Thaer al-Mosawi told the agency, adding that more than 10,000 homes in that part of the city had been destroyed over the same period.
“Reported civilian deaths from coalition strikes have been rising for some months, but where we’re at now — with more than 1,000 claimed fatalities so far this month — is unprecedented,” Airwars Director Chris Woods told the LA Times. “I don’t think any of us at Airwars expected to see allegations against the coalition running so high — even with the predicted high risk to civilians during the Mosul assault.”
A UN official has said “the worst is yet to come” for the hundreds of thousands of civilians still in western Mosul.
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