AP - The US has admitted carrying out an airstrike in northwest Syria but denies targeting a mosque where at least 46 people, most of them civilians, were killed.
The mosque in al-Jina, a village in Aleppo province, was decimated by an airstrike on Thursday evening between 7:00 and 7:30 local time. The US has confirmed it carried out a unilateral air strike against a meeting of senior al-Qaeda militants in the area, but denied responsibility for the civilian deaths.
"The building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about 50 feet (15 metres) from a mosque that is still standing," said Colonel John J. Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command.
A Pentagon spokesman said the strike "clearly hit the intended target”, and showed reporters photographs of an undamaged mosque adjacent to the meeting place. He said the US did not currently assess any civilian casualties.
But photographs taken at the decimated mosque in al-Jina and released by NGO the Syrian Institute for Justice show remnants of American-made weapons, clearly connecting the mosque blast and its civilian casualties to the US strike.
The White Helmets rescue group, which receives US funding and was recently profiled in an Oscar-winning documentary, released harrowing photos of rescuers with headlamps trying to unearth bodies from a sprawl of wreckage.
Local activists said up to 300 people, mainly civilians, were inside the mosque at the time of the attack. With recovery work ongoing, they expected the death toll to rise.
Recent airstrikes in the area have been conducted by the US, rather than the international coalition it leads against Isil, which operates further to the east.
US warplanes and drones appear to be targeting jihadis, including al-Qaeda members, who have been funnelled into Idlib as areas around Damascus and Aleppo have been reclaimed by Syrian government-allied forces. One February drone strike confirmed by the Pentagon saw 10 al-Qaeda operatives killed near Idlib.
Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group that has fought against many of the groups the US has targeted, blamed the US for the civilian deaths and said attacks on mosques and places of worship are considered a war crime in most legal codes.
The US Central Command said on Friday it would "look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike.”