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Mounting claims of civilian deaths after US targets al-Qaida in Syria

By THE WASHINGTON POST | Louisa Loveluck | Published: March 17, 2017

BEIRUT — The United States said that it had carried out an airstrike killing several al-Qaida militants in Syria amid reports emerging Friday that dozens of civilians were possibly killed in the same attack.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Central Command said it had struck a "meeting location" in the northeastern province of Idlib.

But local activists and a monitoring group claimed the airstrike had hit a mosque in the west Aleppo countryside next to Idlib province, killing at least 46 people and leaving dozens more under the rubble.

Reasons for the discrepancy in location were not immediately clear.

"The mosque in al-Jinah was destroyed. Bodies filled the space," said Mohamed al-Shaghal, a local journalist who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring network, described the attack as a "massacre" and said the dead were mostly civilians.

Photographs from the area showed rescue workers and onlookers crowded upon rubble, pulling out bodies ravaged by the blast.

The provinces of Idlib and Aleppo are home to hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by fighting as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad box what is left of six year-long armed rebellion into a shrinking sliver of territory along the country's border with Turkey.

The U.S. has struck dozens of locations in the region, where an al-Qaida-linked alliance of rebel groups is now the ascendent force. The group's second-in-command, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in an air strike on his car late February, and the U.S. said that a separate bombing raid on an al-Qaida training camp in January killed more than 100 militants.

Russian and Syrian aircraft are also known to operate in the area, turning the battlefield into a microcosm of the geopolitical tensions that have come to define Syria's war.

Senior U.S. military officials have called for increased talks between Washington and Moscow to "deconflict" operations and make sure there are no collisions between aircraft.

Separately Friday, Syria and Israel traded competing claims over an apparent Israeli attack near the western city of Palmyra in the early hours of the morning.

While the Syrian military said its air defences had shot down an Israeli jet over what it called "occupied ground," an Israeli military spokesman said the pilots' safety had "at no point" been compromised.
 

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