Syrian rights group says U.S., allies have ‘killed more than 100’ civilians in airstrikes

A leading Syrian opposition human rights group on Wednesday charged that the U.S.-led coalition has been responsible for the deaths of more than 100 civilians since it began bombing Islamic State targets in September and demanded that the U.S. Central Command carry out “a serious investigation” and stop issuing denials.

More than half those killed, 51, died on Dec. 28, when U.S. aircraft struck a building housing an Islamic State prison in the northern Syria town of Al Bab, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.

In addition, the group said that 29 civilians have died in the bombing campaign against oil refineries, many of them primitive operations run by local families to eke out a living in a war zone that receives little or no humanitarian aid.

The network’s report said the total number of confirmed civilian deaths since the U.S. began bombing Syria on Sept. 23 was 103, including 11 children and 11 women. Sixty-three of the deaths occurred since Dec. 14. The network’s report included witness statements.

“Regrettably the alliance forces’ Central Command denies that civilians have been killed by alliance forces,” despite photographic and video evidence, the names of the victims and statements from victims’ families, the group’s director, Fadel Abdul Ghani, said in the report’s introduction.

“There should be serious pursuit and investigation to hold the responsible accountable” and to compensate families of the victims so as to distinguish the U.S.-led alliance from “the lines of totalitarian dictatorships.”

The bombing of the Saraya government building in Al Bab, an Islamic State headquarters that also housed a prison for local civilians, occurred Dec. 28. But the U.S. Central Command didn’t confirm that until two weeks later in response to queries by McClatchy.

After McClatchy reported Jan. 11 that at least 50 civilians had died in the incident, Centcom said a review determined that the allegations of civilian casualties “are not credible.” But it said it would look into the allegations if it is presented with substantive information.

The Central Command used similar language Wednesday. “If there is new, substantive information provided to us regarding Al Bab, we welcome it and will certainly review,” Col. Patrick S. Ryder, the Centcom spokesman, said in an email to McClatchy.

In a followup story Feb. 12, McClatchy reported that relatives and friends who are living in Turkey as refugees had provided the full names of 10 civilians who reportedly died in the airstrike, as well as the family names of 14 others.

In its latest report, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said it had a total of 28 names of civilians out of at least 51 who died on Dec. 28. The network also disclosed that 24 people, the majority of them prisoners, were wounded in the bombing but had been freed by the Islamic State. But the actual number at the prison could have been 100 to 150, the group said, adding that its investigation was continuing.

The network offered to share the information with investigators but said it won’t publish the list to protect the families still living under Islamic State rule in Al Bab.

Most of the prisoners were being held for three or four days for petty infractions of the Islamic State’s draconian penal code, which the extremists applied even after their death. The bodies of those accused of simple charges such as smoking, wearing jeans or arriving late for Muslim prayers were distributed to local hospitals, where families could collect and bury them, the report said.

But they were not allowed to hold funerals or have their names called out from the minarets. Those accused of blasphemy and apostasy – abandoning Islam – or “collaboration with the infidels or apostates” were buried in a new cemetery west of the city, the report said.

A great many of the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria have been directed against oil production and refining facilities in Syria’s eastern provinces. But according to the report, the targets are frequently primitive refineries maintained by private families or local groups or where the employees were local residents, not Islamic State personnel.

Four civilian employes were killed at an oil refinery on Jan. 11 near Mayadeen east of Deir el Zour. On Feb. 2 and Feb. 11, missiles struck mud huts. In the first bombing, near Ash Shaddadi in Hasaka province, a missile killed an old man and his two daughters; in the second, at Kbeibeh, also in Hasaka, a missile killed two employees working in the oldfields.

The network’s report said that in targeting wells and refineries, which are a source of livelihood for people in that area, the bombings led to a severe economic crisis, causing a fuel shortage and higher prices.

“There is no choice for the people there to get the resources to live, and we are highly concerned that this policy will lead to more casualties if the coalition forces continue,” it said.

The Centcom spokesman said the coalition’s targeting of income from oil production is fundamental to its effort to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State, and it would “continue to target verified military targets that include refineries of varying capacity.”

But Ryder said there were “significant mitigation measures” to reduce the potential number of civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Ryder did not respond directly to the demand that the U.S. compensate the victims, but he did not rule it out. “The course of action as to each case will be determined on that particular case,” he said.

In another development Wednesday, 130 humanitarian aid groups released a study that showed that the use of electricity at night in Syria is down by 83 percent since March 2011.

In Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, 97 percent of the lights have gone out, said Dr. Xi Li, a scientist based at Wuhan University in China and the University of Maryland. Even in Damascus, the Syrian capital, the use of lights at night is down by 35 percent. He said the situation in Syria was worse than even Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, when the country lost 80 percent of its night light.

McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed.