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Report: US-led airstrikes against IS kill more than 450 civilians

While the US claimed only two civilians were killed in its anti-IS campaign, Airwars say there are hundreds of documented civilian causalities
Syrians inspect the damage following a reported US-led coalition air strike Idlib, Syria on 19 November 2014 (AFP)

While the US-led coalition has acknowledged the death of only two civilians during its air campaign over Islamic State (IS) positions in Iraq and Syria, a new report shows that the airstrikes have actually killed more than 450 non-combatants.

The campaign which began over Iraq 8 August and over Syria on 23 September will be reaching its first anniversary on Saturday, with more than 5,700 airstrikes launched since the start of the campaign.

While the effect of these airstrikes on civilians remains largely unknown, Airwars, a team of independent journalists, published a detailed report on 52 strikes killing at least 459 civilians, including those of more than 100 children.

Airwars used international and local news reports in Arabic and English, social media postings including photos and videos, and the findings of monitoring groups on the ground to cross-reference these with coalition military reports.

Despite Lieutenant General John Hesterman, the US-led coalition’s lead commander has calling the campaign “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare”, Airwars project leader Chris Woods told the Guardian: “The emphasis on precision in our view hasn’t been borne out by facts on the ground.”

The lead force in the campaign, the US Central Command (Centcom), has published one official investigation in May that found only two children were killed in a November 2014 strike in Syria.

But according to Airwar’s report, there is a “worrying gulf between public and coalition positions” on the campaign’s toll on civilians, with public reports and on the ground sources showing a high and increasing number of civilian causalities as a result of the airstrikes.

International media has also reported on high numbers of civilian casualities in coalition airstrikes.

In January, eyewitnesses and opposition human rights organisations claimed 50 Syrian civilians were killed when a US-led coalition airstrike targeted an IS headquarter in northern Syria, reported McClatchy Newspapers at the time.

Since May, Centcom has conducted investigations into three further strikes, which found claims of civilian deaths were “unfounded”. One of the attacks investigated was on Fadhiliya, Iraq, on 4 April, which according to media reports, eye witnesses and local politicians said a family of five had died.

At the same time, Airwars examined 118 airstrikes over a period of six months and identified that 52 of those strikes “warrant urgent investigation”, as the team believes there are strong indications of civilian deaths, according to multiple, reliable sources, from these attacks, reported the Guardian.

The bloodiest was a 3 June air strike on a factory suspected of manufacturing explosive devices and storage facility in Hawija. Videos and photos posted online after the bombing showed a large number of destroyed buildings, while local people told al-Jazeera and Reuters that over 70 civilians were killed.

Even though it is difficult to track the number of civilian deaths on the ground, in many cases, non-combatant deaths are well-documented – in many attacks, multiple sources suggest that scores of civilians may have been killed.

Centcom told Airwars it would only publish investigations with a “preponderance of evidence” of civilian deaths. It is understood to be examining six further incidents, reported the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Sahr Muhamadally, from the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told the Guardian that: “All allegations of civilian harm, including from open sources, should be investigated by the coalition and processes should be in place to acknowledge and assist those harmed.”

In Iraq, the US-led coalition includes France, Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, Denmark and Canada. Jordan has also carried out airstrikes in Iraq as well as in Syria, although it has released no further information about the dates or locations of its attacks.

The coalition conducting airstrikes in Syria include the US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Canada began its own strikes in April, while Britain carries out routine reconnaissance-only drone missions above Syria, and British pilots have carried out airstrikes while embedded with US forces.

Airwars has called on the US-led coaltion for greater transparency and accountability from coalition members, since each is individually liable for any civilian deaths or injuries it causes.

"Only one of twelve coalition partners - Canada - has consistently stated in a timely fashion both where and when it carries out airstrikes," the report said.

Turkey, which recently began carrying out its own airstrikes against the IS group in Syria and Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, said it would investigate accusations by the Iraqi Kurdish regional government and activists with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, that its airstrikes caused civilian casualties in the northern Iraqi town of Zargel, reported Haaretz.

On Monday, the UN said that it is concerned about reports that 40 civilians may have been killed and over 30 wounded in an airstrike west of Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province, and called on the Iraqi government to investigate the incident.