US military covered up air strikes that killed dozens of civilians in Syria

US Central Command acknowledged the assault that took place in 2019 for the first time this week

TOPSHOT - Smoke and fire billow after shelling on the Islamic State group's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province on March 3, 2019. Kurdish-led forces backed by US warplanes rained artillery fire and air strikes on besieged and outgunned jihadists making a desperate last stand in a Syrian village. / AFP / Delil souleiman
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The US military covered up air strikes in Syria that killed up to 64 women and children, during a battle with ISIS in 2019, a report has said.

The two air strikes near the town of Baghuz were ordered by a classified American special operations unit tasked with ground operations in Syria, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

The newspaper said US Central Command, which oversaw air operations in Syria, acknowledged the strikes for the first time this week and said they were justified.

On Saturday, Central Command reiterated the account it gave the newspaper that 80 people were killed in the strikes including 16 ISIS fighters and four civilians.

The military said it was unclear if the other 60 people were civilians, partly because women and children could have been combatants.

In Saturday's statement, the military said the strikes were "legitimate self-defence", proportional and that "appropriate steps were taken to rule out the presence of civilians."

"We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them. In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life," Central Command said.

'At least one child armed'

The number of civilians among the 60 fatalities could not be determined because "multiple armed women and at least one armed child were observed" in video of the events, it said. The majority of the 60 were likely combatants, the command said.

The strikes took place while Syrian Democratic Forces were under heavy fire and in danger of being overrun and the SDF had reported the area clear of civilians.

The Defence Department's inspector general launched an inquiry into the incident on March 18, 2019, but its report was ultimately "stripped" of any mention of the bombing and a thorough, independent probe never took place, the New York Times said.

The newspaper said its report was based on confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved.

Updated: November 14, 2021, 5:49 AM