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Pentagon denies mosque airstrike

Says al-Qaida was target of raid in Syria

McClatchy Washington Bureau Published: March 18, 2017 4:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military killed dozens of al-Qaida militants in an airstrike in northern Syria, the Pentagon said Friday, but it denied local reports that a mosque had been struck and dozens of civilians were killed.

"We are not aware of any credible assessment of civilian casualties," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the strike had hit a mosque that was crowded for evening prayers, killing at least 42 people, mostly civilians.

"The mosque is still standing and relatively unscathed," Davis said.

The Pentagon released a black-and-white photo Friday showing the site in Jinah after the strike Thursday night. It shows a small mosque seemingly undamaged, and the targeted building in rubble. The military said it targeted the place where al-Qaida senior leaders were meeting and "deliberately did not target the mosque" across the street.

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"We had tracked this building for some time. We know it was being used by al-Qaida," Davis said.

The area "was extensively surveilled prior to the strike in order to minimize civilian casualties . We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al-Qaida terrorists were killed," he said.

Video from the scene showed rescue workers in white helmets digging people out of the rubble Thursday night under spotlights.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed 220 civilians since operations began in 2014, according to the latest Pentagon estimate, released this month. Monitoring groups say the number is much higher. Airwars, an independent, Britain-based group, says at least 2,462 civilians have been killed in these strikes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 320,000 people have died in six years of conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad.

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