Pentagon 'clarifies' Austin's Gaza death toll of 25,000 women and children

Defence chief was quoting Hamas numbers and the US is not tracking Gaza casualty figures, Pentagon says

US Secretary of Defence: 'More than 25,000 Palestinian women and children killed since October 7'

US Secretary of Defence: 'More than 25,000 Palestinian women and children killed since October 7'
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The Pentagon on Thursday clarified comments by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin after he said more than 25,000 women and children have been killed by Israel since the Hamas attacks on October 7.

It appeared to be the first time President Joe Biden's administration had publicly stated a figure related to the deaths in Gaza but the Pentagon later said the number quoted by Mr Austin was an estimate by the enclave's Hamas-controlled health authorities.

At a House armed services committee hearing, Mr Austin was asked how many Palestinian women and children have been killed by Israel since October 7.

“It’s over 25,000,” the defence chief said.

Within hours, the Pentagon said Mr Austin was quoting Hamas numbers and that the US is not keeping track of Gaza casualty figures.

“During the hearing today, Secretary Austin was asked how many women and children have died in Gaza," Pentagon press secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder told reporters.

"To clarify, the secretary’s answer was citing an estimate from the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry that more than 25,000 total Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

"We cannot independently verify these Gaza casualty figures.”

He said that absent being on the ground in Gaza, the Pentagon has no way to corroborate tolls given by Israel or Gaza authorities.

"It's challenging, and so we do have to rely in large part on open-source information that's out there," Maj Gen Ryder said.

But "we're fairly confident that thousands of civilians have been killed, and one innocent civilian being killed is too many".

Mr Austin's comment came as Mr Biden looks to pressure Israel into accepting a ceasefire and reducing civilian casualties in Gaza.

Health authorities in the Gaza Strip say more than 30,000 people have been killed in the Israeli offensive in the territory, with tens of thousands more missing under the rubble of bombed buildings.

Israel, however, routinely plays down the number of deaths and has suggested most of those killed were Hamas fighters.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli military did not respond to several requests for comment.

The US has backed Israel since the unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

The committee hearing was told about 21,000 precision-guided munitions had been provided to Israel since the start of its war in Gaza.

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Mr Austin made his comments during an appearance before Congress to defend the handling of his prostate cancer diagnosis in December.

He has repeatedly apologised for failing to inform Mr Biden that he would be heading to hospital for an operation in January.

Republicans said he should be held to account but Mr Austin said his authorities had been properly delegated to his deputy.

“It’s totally unacceptable that it took three days to inform the President of the United States that the Secretary of Defence was in the hospital and not in control of the Pentagon,” said Mike Rogers, chairman of the House armed services committee.

“The chain of command doesn’t work when the commander-in-chief doesn’t know who to call.”

Mr Austin was in hospital when the US launched retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria.

Updated: February 29, 2024, 9:25 PM