Hundreds of civilians killed in allied bomb raids on Isil
International coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria are believed to have killed more than 400 civilians, according to a new report.
For a year now, the US-led air campaign has tried to halt the spread of Islamist militancy through the two countries, targeting thousands of positions linked to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and the Khorasan group, a smaller network affiliated with al-Qa'ida that officials say is plotting attacks against Europe and the United States.
According to new research, the attacks have also claimed the lives of at least 459 civilians to date. In the report released yesterday, Airwars, a research project tracking the international fight against Isil, identifies 57 separate incidents in which there is publicly available evidence to suggest that coalition bombs killed non-combatants without links to the extremists.
In one of the deadliest incidents, an international air strike appears to have killed more than 50 civilians as they cowered in an Isil-run prison.
"The international coalition has boasted that its air war against Islamic State is 'the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare'. Yet facts from the ground suggest a very different story," said Chris Woods, director of Airwars.
The coalition - which includes British planes and pilots - has admitted to causing only two civilian deaths in the campaign. Mr Woods warned that minimising casualty figures risks handing Isil "a powerful propaganda tool".
Throughout its year-long sweep across Iraq and Syria, Isil has presented itself as a defender of Sunni communities against sectarian governments and militias. It now rules over as many as eight million people, consolidating its power through spectacular violence and harshly enforced Islamic diktats.
On December 28 last year, dozens of civilians were reportedly killed by a coalition air strike as Isil punished them for breaking bans on 'un-Islamic' practices such as smoking or playing music from mobile phones.
According to Airwars, 58 non-combatants were killed in the blast at an Isil-run makeshift prison in the north Syrian town of Al-Bab. Although the US military eventually admitted that the facility had been hit, it has not been drawn on the possibility that dozens of civilians were killed within its confines.
In another incident described in the report, a major air raid on Isil-controlled oilfields in the Syrian governorate of Hassakeh is reported to have killed an elderly shepherd, Ibrahim al-Mussul, and his two daughters.
"Their bodies were shredded," said a neighbour, who is quoted in the report. "We found Ibrahim's hand next to the house, and we were still collecting bits of flesh and body parts into the early hours of the following morning."
There are growing calls for greater transparency and accountability in the international air war against Isil.
The US military says that 'valid' claims of civilian casualties will be "processed in accordance with the laws of the nation that conducted the strike".
Of the 12 member states in the international coalition, only Canada consistently declares the date and location of its air strikes. Last month, it was revealed that British pilots have been embedded with other air forces in the campaign, even though UK operations were limited to Iraq in a vote in parliament in September.
According to US estimates, the American-led bombing campaign has hit nearly 8,000 Isil targets and killed some 12,500 of the group's fighters.
Yet its strength remains largely undiminished, and Isil has seized a number of key towns and cities - most notably Ramadi in Iraq - since the air campaign began.
Meanwhile yesterday, activists say air raids and the subsequent crash of a Syrian warplane in a residential area in the northwestern town of Ariha has killed and wounded dozens of people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees had no immediate specific death toll for the violence.
The town of Ariha, once a government stronghold, was captured by opposition fighters and Islamic militants in May.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees said that at the time of the crash, the town was under attack by the air force of embattled President Bashar Assad.