Baghdadi raid expected children to be present in compound, US official says
The US raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the fugitive leader of the Islamic State (IS) group, was planned on the assumption that multiple children were present in the compound where he was hiding, a US military officials said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a US defense department briefing during which footage of the raid was released for the first time, General Kenneth McKenzie, the operational leader of the mission, said that two small children had been killed with Baghdadi when he detonated an explosive belt he was wearing in a tunnel into which he had fled.
Four women and one man believed to be IS members were also killed, McKenzie said, in the Saturday night raid targeting a compound near the village of Barisha in northwestern Syria's Idlib province.
US President Donald Trump had previously said that three children were killed. Another 11 children were present in the compound, McKenzie said. The operation had been approved by Trump and other senior officials who were briefed on all risks involved in the plan, he said.
"I will also note that the plan accounted for the assumption that we would find multiple children at the objective. As you will see, we took steps to minimise innocent casualties," McKenzie said.
McKenzie said that US forces had surrounded the compound and urged those inside to come out peacefully. Those who came out, including the 11 children, were "treated humanely at all times" and later released.
"I want to make it clear that despite the violent nature of the raid and the high-profile nature of this assault, every effort was made to avoid civilian casualities and to protect the children that we suspected would be at the compound," said McKenzie.
"Let me emphasise again that 11 children were protected by the assault force."
The two children who died were with Baghdadi when he blew himself up as his capture by US forces was imminent, McKenzie confirmed. But he did not confirm Trump's account of the raid which described the IS leader "whimpering and crying" in his final moments.
"I can tell you this: he crawled into a hole with two small children, and blew himself up while his - while his people stayed on the ground; so you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity."
McKenzie said that both of the children killed were believed to be younger than 12 years old.
Grainy aerial footage of the raid released on Wednesday appeared to show US forces closing in on Baghdadi's walled compound from two sides.
McKenzie said the compound was destroyed "to ensure that it would not be a shrine or otherwise memorable in any way".
After Baghdadi's death, US forces secured the area in order to take DNA samples which were compared with samples obtained from Baghdadi when he was a US prisoner in Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2004.
His remains were then taken away by the raid force and buried at sea within 24 hours of the operation, McKenzie said. The US is reported to have gained information about Baghdadi's whereabouts from an informant within the IS leader's inner circle.