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Syria: US Pentagon to probe 2019 strike that killed civilians

The investigation will look at whether the US complied with laws of war and whether officials should be held accountable
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the investigation into the 2019 air strike in Syria.
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the investigation into the 2019 air strike in Syria (AFP)
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Washington

The US Defence Department has ordered an investigation into a 2019 air strike in Syria that killed dozens of women and children, and which was initially covered up by the Pentagon.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the investigation, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a news conference on Monday, and the probe will be led by General Michael Garrett, a four-star general that is in charge of US Army Forces Command.

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The review, which Garrett will have 90 days to complete, will look into the civilian casualties from the strike, as well as whether the US complied with the laws of war and whether "accountability measures would be appropriate".

The decision comes several weeks after The New York Times reported that military officers and government officials worked to hide the casualties from the air strike, which were conducted near the town of Baghuz and ordered by a classified American special operations unit tasked with ground operations in Syria.

The attack took place during a battle against the Islamic State (IS) group, and according to The Times it killed a total of 80 people - 16 IS fighters and 64 women and children. One legal officer flagged the event as a possible war crime.

The US military said the strikes killed 16 fighters and four civilians, but added that it was not clear whether the other 60 people killed were civilians, partly because women and children could have been combatants.

The task force that investigated the strike ultimately concluded that no wrongdoing had been committed by the military unit, and after sending its findings to the Central Command headquarters, officials there did not follow up and the case remained open until the newspaper's own investigation.

The Times reported that the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are also investigating the strike.

The investigation comes amid renewed scrutiny over the use of air strikes by the US military, after the Biden administration conducted an air strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, all members of the same family.

American lawmakers have been pushing to limit the president's authority to authorise such strikes without congressional approval.

Some lawmakers, as well as rights groups, have been similarly calling on President Joe Biden to put an end to Washington's use of lethal force outside of armed conflict zones.

Earlier this month, Austin said during a news conference that he was committed to adjusting military procedures and holding top officers responsible for civilian harm. However, the defence secretary did not discuss what problems have allowed civilian casualties to continue in Syria and Afghanistan.