US probes whether attack killed civilian, not al-Qaeda leader

A US air attack in Syria may have killed a poor farmer with 10 children rather than al-Qaeda leader as initially stated.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Joint Chiefs Chair Army General Mark Milley speaks with U.S. forces in Syria during an unannounced visit, at a U.S. military base in Northeast Syria, March 4, 2023. REUTERS/Phil Stewart/File Photo
US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley speaks with his country's forces at a military base in northeast Syria on March 4 [File: Phil Stewart/Reuters]

The United States government is investigating whether an air raid in Syria killed a civilian instead of the “senior al-Qaeda leader” initially identified as its target.

Shortly after the May 3 attack, the brother of the man killed denied that the victim had any links to al-Qaeda. On Friday, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said that it continues to investigate those allegations.

“CENTCOM continues to assess the outcome of the strike and has been made aware of allegations that the strike may have resulted in a civilian casualty,” spokesman Major John Moore said on Friday.

The US has continued to lean heavily on air raids against armed groups across the region. The US has insisted that it carried out such attacks with a high degree of precision, but media investigations, human rights groups and watchdog organisations have found that US raids frequently kill civilians.

Admissions of wrongdoing by the US are not common, and there has been little accountability in instances where the US acknowledged that innocent people had been killed in botched attacks.

CENTCOM initially stated that the attack in early May had targeted a “senior Al-Qaeda leader”, and a news release from the day of the raid said that the action “reaffirms CENTCOM’s steadfast commitment to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS [ISIL] and Al Qaeda”.

Several hours after the attack, however, the brother of a man killed in the attack near the village of Qurqania denied that the victim, Lotfi Hassan Masto, had any links to al-Qaeda.

“He was happy with his life and everyone loved him and appreciated him,” said the victim’s brother, 72-year-old Mohammed Masto. “He minded his own business and lived at the edge of the village.”

The Washington Post reported that the deceased Masto was a 56-year-old father of 10 and those who knew him said that his “whole life was spent poor”. He was tending his sheep when he was killed by a Hellfire missile on May 3.

CENTCOM said that it is investigating whether the attack “may have unintentionally resulted in harm to civilians”, and the Washington Post quoted a US defence official as saying that the military was “no longer confident” that it had killed an al-Qaeda leader. The Pentagon has refused to offer any additional details regarding the intended target of the raid.

The US has carried out air raids in Syria for years, targeting armed organisations that have been active in the country destabilised by more than a decade of war.

That conflict has involved a dizzying number of forces, including from the Syrian government, foreign armies, paramilitaries, rebels and other armed groups. The fighting has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced more than 14 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies