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Australian air strike in Iraq in 2017 may have killed civilians

ADF says its fighter jets may have caused the deaths of up to 18 non-combatants in a raid on Mosul
Two Australian Super Hornets dropped bombs on 13 July 2017 on a building and courtyard in west Mosul (AFP)

An Australian air strike in Iraq in 2017 may have killed up to 18 civilians, the Australian government confirmed on Thursday, following a year-long investigation.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is part of the US-led coalition fighting against Islamic State group (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

Two Australian Super Hornets dropped bombs on 13 July 2017, on a building and courtyard after Iraqi security forces had called for help to strike a neighbourhood in west Mosul where IS fighters had set up positions, the defence department said.

A separate strike by unidentified coalition forces took place simultaneously in the same street.

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Despite post-strike surveys failing to detect civilian deaths, the ADF was alerted by the US-led coalition last January to claims on the website Airwars that there were civilians in a nearby building. 

Airwars, which tracks civilian deaths in war, suggested up to 34 people had died.

Following an investigation completed in December, the ADF concluded the claims were "credible".

"Ultimately, we have determined that it is possible civilians were unintentionally killed by the coalition during these strikes," Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld said in a statement on Thursday. 

"Any loss of civilian life is highly regrettable and we treat all allegations seriously," he said.

The coalition estimated that between six and 18 civilians may have been killed, a figure based on population density estimates.

The ADF said it was impossible to "definitively know" whether its forces, another coalition strike or "other actors" killed the civilians.

There was no specific intelligence suggesting civilians were at the targeted sites, but the defence department said "it was impossible to be sure under the urgent circumstances facing the Iraqi forces at the time," adding that the Australian jet fighters hit their intended targets.

Hupfeld said that because the Australian strikes had accurately hit their targets and been carried out according to protocol, no penalties or other actions would be taken against those involved.

The coalition conducted 32,397 strikes in Iraq and Syria between August 2014 and the end of 2018, and estimates that at least 1,190 civilians were killed "unintentionally" in that period, the joint force said in a statement on Thursday.

Australia ended its strike aircraft operations in Iraq and Syria in January.