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MIDEAST >Dozens killed in Allepo, US denies targeting mosque

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REUTERS photo

REUTERS photo

The United States has said it conducted an air strike in Syria against an al-Qaeda meeting but denied deliberately targeting a mosque where a monitor said 46 people were killed on March 17.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the dead in the raid on al-Jineh, in Aleppo province, were civilians.

The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing jihadist groups in war-torn Syria since 2014, with hundreds of civilians unintentionally killed in the country and in neighboring Iraq.

“We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about [15 meters] from a mosque that is still standing,” said Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

“U.S. forces conducted an airstrike on an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists,” Centcom said.

The Centcom spokesman later clarified that the precise location of the strike was unclear – but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in al-Jineh.

“We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he added.

An AFP correspondent reported seeing rescue workers in white helmets working under spotlights with picks and shovels late on March 16 to dig people out of the rubble.

Much of the building, identified by a black placard outside as a mosque, had been flattened.

The empty prayer hall was covered in debris, and rescue workers stepped through it carefully, deliberating how to break down a wall to search for more survivors.

Rescuers had earlier left the wreckage site but were forced to double back when they heard moaning coming from the rubble.

“More than 100 people were wounded,” observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said on March 16, adding that many were still trapped under the collapsed mosque.

The village is held by Islamist groups, but the observatory said no jihadist factions are present.

Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he “heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it.

“I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognize some of the bodies,” he added.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests six years ago.

A cease-fire between government forces and non-jihadist rebel groups was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia in December 2016, but violence has continued.

The observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information, says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.

But the skies over Aleppo province are busy, with Syrian regime and Russian warplanes as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft carrying out strikes.

Russia began a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and in the past has dismissed allegations of civilian deaths in its strikes.

March/17/2017

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