U.S. to look into claim of Syria airstrike killing civilians

A black flag belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is seen in the Syrian town of Kobani, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc, Oct. 9, 2014.

Reuters/Umit Bektas/Files

BEIRUT -- The U.S. military said Saturday it was looking into an activist group's claim that at least 52 civilians were killed in U.S.-led airstrikes near the Syrian border town of Kobani amid its campaign against the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The strikes happened Thursday and Friday on the Syrian village of Bir Mahli, the Britain-based based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The U.S.-led coalition said its strikes during that time destroyed seven ISIS positions and one of the group's vehicles near Kobani, which Kurdish fighters ultimately pushed the extremists out of after months of intense fighting.

On Saturday, the Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said the strikes only hit civilians in their homes in Bir Mhali, a mixed Kurdish and Arab village, killing 52, including seven children and nine women. His activist group relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for more than four years.

Maj. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told The Associated Press that there was no information to corroborate the Observatory's claims, though the coalition has measures in place to reduce potential collateral damage.

"We currently have no information to corroborate allegations that coalition airstrikes resulted in civilian casualties," Kellogg said. "Regardless, we take all allegations seriously and will look into them further."

Corroborating any account in Syria is extremely difficult, as journalists have been targeted by insurgent groups, including ISIS, which has beheaded Western reporters. That includes information about casualties and damage caused by U.S.-led airstrikes.

Shorsh Hassan, a spokesman for the main Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, in Kobani, said he was not aware of any civilian casualties in the strikes. He told the AP that the village, held by ISIS extremists, was emptied of civilians days before the clashes that preceded the airstrikes. The area has seen heavy fighting between the Kurdish forces and ISIS.

Local journalist and activist Mustafa Bali, who was in a nearby village at the time of the clashes and the strikes, said he had only seen militants in the area around the village before the strikes.

Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed umbrella opposition group, said it appeared U.S.-led strikes in the village likely killed civilians, though "it is hard at this moment to speak with absolute certainty."

"Available information from activists on the ground, and the fact that the U.S.-led coalition has conducted airstrikes in the area, lend credence to reports that it was a U.S.-led coalition airstrike that caused the civilian casualties," al-Meslet said in a statement. "It is absolutely vital, therefore, that such reports are taken seriously, and a full investigation into the incident is carried out immediately."

Activists previously have claimed U.S.-led airstrikes have killed civilians, though only a few at a time at most. The Observatory puts the number of civilians killed in the strikes at over 60 killed since the coalition began bombing the ISIS last September.