- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2017

The Pentagon is denying reports that a number of civilians were injured and killed as a result of an U.S. airstrike against senior-level al Qaeda leaders in northwest Syria on Thursday night.

The airstrike, utilizing a mix of fighter jets and armed drones, leveled a building in the Syrian village of al Jinah, 17 miles south of neighboring Aleppo province where senior members of al Qaeda’s core leadership — several “likely high value individuals,” were gathering for a meeting, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Friday.

“We believe we killed dozens of al Qaeda leaders,” as a result of the airstrikes, but department officials were still working to confirm those numbers, Capt. Davis told reporters at the Pentagon.

However, officials from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that 46 civilians had been killed during the strike, while unconfirmed images of the attack’s aftermath on social media claimed the attack had targeted the village mosque.

An estimated 300 individuals were packed into the mosque for evening prayers at the time of the airstrike.

While there remained no confirmable claims of civilian casualties had been brought to light by Defense Department or U.S. Central Command officials, the command who oversaw the strike, Capt. Davis made clear American warplanes and drones had not targeted the mosque.

An aerial picture of the attack site, taken after the strike, showed the al Jinah mosque intact next to the massive bomb crater where the targeted building holding the al Qaeda meeting had once stood.

‘This was the building we intended to strike, and we struck it,” Capt. Davis said. “This [strike] hit it’s target and that was the intended target.”

Acknowledging that “there could be some damage to the [holy] site…but the mosque is still standing,” he said, referring to the imagery of the blast site provided by the Defese Department.

As Central Command continues to investigate claims of civilian casualties, Capt. Davis refuted claims that such an attack — carried out within such close proximity to a mosque packed with civilians — was the result of any new leniency in the American rules of engagement for such strikes.

While declining to comment specifically on what level U.S. mission planners were accounting for possible civilian casualties during the al Jinah strike, he did say command officials adhered to “strict” parameters concerning acceptable civilian casualties.

The Washington Times reported in January that military advisers close to Defense Secretary James Mattis were considering loosening the restrictions on U.S. airstrikes that the Obama administration kept in place in war against extremist groups.

A key tenet of the proposed revised rules of engagement would raise the “acceptable” number of estimated collateral civilian casualties to authorize a U.S. or allied airstrike, sources said at the time.

Loosening these restrictions would give American commanders a freer hand in ordering strikes against the Islamic State’s northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, which the Trump White House has strongly advocated.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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