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US Airstrikes in Syria May Have Killed Civilians: Central Command

FILE -- An F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Sept. 17, 2015, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Anna Van Nuys/U.S. Navy
FILE -- An F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Sept. 17, 2015, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Anna Van Nuys/U.S. Navy

Three U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the past week may have killed civilians in northeastern Syria during "shaping operations" in preparation for an offensive against Raqqa, U.S. Central Command said.

In two of the incidents, a vehicle that may have been carrying civilians drove into the target area as the bomb or missile was being released, the said in a statement Tuesday night.

Since the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began in August 2014, the American military has acknowledged that at least 55 civilians have been killed in strikes in Syria and Iraq.

The report on the latest possible civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes came as Russia and the U.S. sought to maintain a seven-day "cessation of hostilities" in Syria to allow aid to reach isolated areas. The cessation was to form the basis for the potential coordination of U.S. and Russian airstrikes with a goal of limiting the civilian toll.

Central Command said that in a Sept. 7 strike near the northeastern Syrian town of Dayr Az Zawr, "what appeared to be a non-military vehicle drove into the target area after the weapon was released from the aircraft."

Another strike Sept. 10 near Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, also may have resulted in civilian deaths, the command said. In a third strike Sept. 12 near Ash Shaddadah, another apparently civilian vehicle drove into the target area after the weapon was released, the command said.

"Every report of civilian casualties, from either internal or external sources, is scrutinized regarding possible casualties and collateral damage," the statement said, adding that "assessments determined to be credible are reviewed as to whether the actions comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict."

The Defense Department has maintained throughout the war against ISIS that the air campaign was the most precise in the history of air warfare and that civilian casualties, or collateral damage, have been low considering the number of sorties flown and munitions dropped.

According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command, U.S. and coalition warplanes conducted 1,789 combat strike sorties and nearly 4,145 total sorties in August in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Since the air war began Aug. 8, 2014, U.S. and coalition aircraft have released munitions more than 54,000 times -- 6,292 in 2014; 28,696 in 2015, and 19,623 through August of this year, Air Forces Central Command said.

According to the Pentagon, the total number of civilian deaths from U.S. and coalition bombing in Iraq and Syria is 55. But human rights and monitoring groups, including Amnesty International, have charged that the death toll is much higher.

On July 19, at least 73 civilians were killed, many of them children, during U.S. coalition airstrikes near Manbij in northeastern Syria, which was under siege by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The commission noted that the U.S. had begun a formal investigation of the alleged incident, which is ongoing.

However, the commission said in a Sept. 6 report that much of the blame for the soaring civilian death toll in Syria's multi-sided, more than five-year-old civil war rested with the Syrian government air forces and their Russian allies.

All parties were to blame for "indiscriminate attacks on civilians," the report said, but commission investigator Vitit Muntarbhorn said at a U.N. news conference last week that bombings by "pro-government forces cause the most civilian casualties and damage to the civilian infrastructure, particularly in Idlib and Aleppo."

When asked to clarify, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, head of the commission, said, "The forces that are in the air are Russian and Syrian forces."

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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