WASHINGTON — Airstrikes on Monday by the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition hit the terrorist group’s fighters inside a Syrian mosque where ISIS was launching attacks against American-back militia, Pentagon officials said.

The strike in Sousa, a small town in eastern Syria near its border with Iraq, was the second attack by the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition against an ISIS-occupied mosque in less than a week, Pentagon and coalition officials said Monday. On Oct. 18, the coalition conducted a similar strike.

In both cases, ISIS was using the mosques as command-and-control centers in their ongoing fight against Syrian Democratic Forces, said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.

International war law protects mosques from being targeted. However, Manning said the use of the religious buildings by ISIS made the airstrikes legitimate. He said pilots conducting the strike took measures to avoid civilian casualties and intelligence showed only ISIS fighters were occupying the buildings when they were bombed.

“They’re nasty, they’re brutal, they’re unethical and they certainly have no problem at all putting civilians at risk and jeopardizing the status of protected targets,” Manning said. “…“It’s not us, it’s ISIS that turned that mosque into a command-and-control center, which made it a legitimate military target.”

The strike killed several ISIS fighters, according to a statement from the Baghdad-based Operation Inherent Resolve coalition.

Sousa is located along the Euphrates River in a portion of eastern Syria that remains controlled by ISIS. U.S.-backed SDF forces have been working for months to clear that final pocket of ISIS-controlled land. American officials have said some 2,000 ISIS fighters are believed to remain in that area and hold about 2 percent of the land that the group once controlled across Syria and Iraq.

The OIR statement said the use of mosques by ISIS shows the group is nearing defeat.

ISIS “demonstrates desperation and the willingness to misuse protected structures to launch military attacks against SDF and coalition forces,” the statement said.

Last week, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right accused the coalition of killing and wounding dozens of civilians in the Oct. 18 strike. The U.S. military did not confirm or deny civilians were killed, but vowed to investigate any legitimate reports of civilian casualties. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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