The US military says it carried out an air raid in northern Syria against an Al Qaeda target, but denies deliberately hitting a mosque where at least 42 people were killed, according to an independent monitor.
The US-led coalition has been bombing extremist groups in war-torn Syria for several years, with hundreds of civilians unintentionally killed in the country and in neighbouring Iraq.
“We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target — which was where the meeting took place — is about 15 metres from a mosque that is still standing,” said Colonel John J. Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command (Centcom).
However his assessment of the state of mosque appeared to be at odds with what was going on at the scene, where rescue workers struggled to pull survivors and bodies from the rubble.
According to a Centcom statement: “US forces conducted an air raid on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists.”
The Centcom spokesman later explained that the precise location of the strike was unclear — but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province, bout 30 kilometres from Aleppo city.
“We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he added, when asked about reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that 42 people had died in the attack on the village mosque, most of them civilians.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory, a war monitoring service based in Britain, said, “The raids by unidentified warplanes targeted a mosque in Aleppo province during evening prayers, killing 42 people, most of them civilians.”
More than 100 people were wounded, and many were still trapped under the rubble of the collapsed mosque.
The village is held by rebel and Islamist groups, but there are no extremist factions present. Dozens of villagers remain unaccounted for.
Abu Muhammed, a village resident, said he heard “powerful explosions” when the mosque was hit. “It was right after prayers, at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men going on in it, ” he said. “I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognise some of the bodies.”
Rescuers were beginning to leave the wreckage but doubled back when they heard moaning coming from beneath the debris.
Footage published by Halab Today, an online media group covering news in Aleppo, showed piles of rubble where the mosque allegedly stood.
A cessation of hostilities was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia in December, but violence has continued across much of Syria.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information, says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.
But the skies over Aleppo province are busy, with Syrian regime and Russian warplanes as well as US-led coalition aircraft carrying out air raids.
Russia began a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and in the past has dismissed allegations of civilian deaths in its strikes.
The US-led coalition, meanwhile, has been bombing militant groups in Syria since 2014. Earlier this month, the coalition said at least 220 civilians had been unintentionally killed in its air raids since 2014, but critics maintain the real number is much higher.