US disputes claim Syria strike killed dozens of civilians

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Washington (AFP)

The Pentagon denied Wednesday that large numbers of civilians were killed in a March strike by a Syrian mosque, acknowledging only one possible civilian death at an adjoining religious compound.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed that the March 16 strike in the village of opposition-held Al-Jineh in northern Aleppo killed 49 people -- most of them civilians.

But an investigation led by Lieutenant General Paul Bontrager found that about two dozen men attending an Al-Qaeda meeting were killed in the strike, with several others wounded.

"Sadly, we did assess that there was likely one civilian casualty," Bontrager said, noting he was "unsure" if the person survived.

The general said the probe looked at media reports that indicated a large number of civilian deaths, but investigators did not uncover evidence to support those claims.

"We are not aware of large numbers of civilians being treated in hospitals after the strike," he said.

"We are confident this was a meeting of Al-Qaeda members and leaders."

The strike completely destroyed a building next to a small mosque, which investigators now recognize was a madrassa -- or Islamic religious school -- that was still under construction.

The review found that the strike's targeting officers were not made aware that the complex under construction had a general religious purpose, Bontrager said.

"The failure to identify the religious nature (of the building) is a preventable error," he said.

While no one was found to be negligent in approving the strike, Bontrager said officers should have better interrogated each other about whether they should hit the structure.

"Any madrassa or any other structure at all, if it's being used for military purpose, can be struck, can be a legal target to strike," he said, "it simply has to go through a different legal authority."