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British war monitor to challenge Ministry of Defence over alleged killing of civilian

Airwars accuses the defence ministry of being 'a black box' over its refusal to provide details on the killing of a civilian during an RAF air strike on IS in 2018
An RAF British Aerospace Hawk T.2 is flown along the Machynlleth Loop in north Wales where pilots are regularly trained in low-level flying, 27 March 2023 (AFP)

The UK-based war monitor, Airwars, is set to challenge the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in a tribunal over the refusal to release basic information about a civilian killed in Syria in 2018.

Airwars, which tracked air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) and other groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya since 2014, said on Wednesday that it would challenge the MoD and the Information Commissioner in court, with the appeal due to come to a head later this year.

The case involves an air strike on 26 March 2018 on IS fighters in which the UK government accepted the killing of a civilian "unintentionally," which Airwars said was "the only time the UK government has officially accepted harming civilians".

Former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told parliament in May 2018 that “during a strike to engage three Daesh (IS) fighters, a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed.”

Airwars had asked the MoD to release basic information about this civilian, but the ministry refused.

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The group said that British aircraft dropped more than 4,300 munitions during the eight years of the UK's contribution to the anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria, and according to MoD figures, more than 4,000 IS fighters were killed in the air raids. It says no other civilians were killed.

No record of the strike 

The British government logs of all RAF air strikes don't show a strike on the day of 26 March 2018, the group said.

Airwars also said that the civilian casualty unit, working within the US-led coalition, "reviewed the details of the same strike and concluded that there was no civilian harm from a strike in the location reported".

Local rights groups in Syria also did not find "evidence of any civilians killed by air strikes in that region that day."

Joe Dyke, head of investigations at Airwars, filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2021 following the MoD refusal to release more information about the March 2018 incident.

'Our clients are concerned with a fundamental lack of transparency in how the UK assesses the risk to civilians of its air strikes'

- Erin Alcock, solicitor

He asked for details about the location of the strike and documents outlining how the determination that the victim was a civilian was reached, Airwars said.

“These are vital questions both for the British public and for the civilians in Iraq and Syria who have been affected by British actions,” Emily Tripp, Airwars director, said.

“While most comparable militaries, including the UK’s closest allies the United States, are moving towards more transparency and accountability for the unintended civilian impact of their actions, the UK is going the other way.

“The Ministry of Defence remains a black box.”

Airwars will be represented in the tribunal by Leigh Day solicitors and barrister Will Perry of Monckton Chambers.

“Our clients are concerned with a fundamental lack of transparency in how the UK assesses the risk to civilians of its air strikes before they are carried out, as well as how it investigates and assesses civilian harm after the event,” Erin Alcock of Leigh Day said.

“Transparency in cases of civilian harm is vital to ensure accountability.”

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