An internal investigation carried out by US Central Command (CENTCOM) in the wake of the deadly airstrike on the Al-Jinah Mosque concluded that it was accidentally targeted in what was supposed to be a strike on a meeting of senior Al-Qaeda members, CNN reports, citing two US defense officials.
While photos and videos showed the disastrous aftermath of the strike – which reportedly claimed the lives of over 40 people – emerged almost immediately after the attack on March 16, the US military failed to accept responsibility until now.
The officials told CNN that the building, earlier identified as a partially-built community hall, was in fact part of a “mosque complex.” The probe launched by the Pentagon into the circumstances of the strike – after images of bodies and debris that started circulating on social media challenged their version of events – found that the building had been used as a place of worship in the past.
Another official speaking to CNN said that the building was primarily used as a religious institution.
The sources say that the US command genuinely believed that Al-Qaeda militants were holing up in the building at the time of the attack. It is unknown if the complex had ever been on the list of civilian structures that are banned from attacking.
Following the attack, Colonel John J. Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command, claimed that “We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about 50 feet from a mosque that is still standing.”
A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), based on witness accounts, says that the mosque had been used daily and saw dozens of people gathering inside during prayer calls.
“Aerial surveillance of the building would have shown this,” the report said, accusing US forces of failing to double check the facts on the ground before launching what turned out to be an attack on civilians who were flocking to the site for evening prayers.
“The airstrike took place in between the sunset and the evening prayer, at a time when US officials should have known that there would be people gathering in the mosque,” deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, Lama Fakih, told RT in April.
HRW did not find any evidence that would have backed up the claim that an Al-Qaeda meeting was being held there.
Such negligence in identifying the target “raises the question whether officers were criminally reckless in authorizing the attack,” the report says.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, some news outlets rushed to pin the blame for the reported death of civilians on Moscow or Damascus.
However, after troves of evidence emerged which indicated the culpability of the US – including a photo allegedly showing a fragment of an air-to-surface AGM-114 Hellfire missile from the site – Moscow urged Washington to comment.
“Unlike some of our opponents, we are not going to blame them for ‘intentional killing of civilians and destruction of infrastructure,’” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said at the time, adding that she was sure the US warplanes had been aiming at terrorists during the ill-fated sortie.
UN chief welcomes Syria de-escalation zones brokered by Russia, Turkey & Iran
Guterres was “encouraged by the agreement today in Astana, Kazakhstan, by guarantor countries Iran, Russia and Turkey to de-escalate violence in key areas in Syria,” the spokesman for the Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, wrote in a statement released by the UN.
“The Secretary-General welcomes the commitments to ceasing the use of all weapons, particularly aerial assets; to rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access; and to creating conditions for the delivery of medical aid and meeting civilians’ basic needs,” he said.
The UN chief believes it is “crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians.”
The statement also reiterated the UN’s support for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Earlier, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria, praised the deal as “an important, promising, positive step in the right direction in the process of de-escalation of the conflict.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia cautiously welcomed the agreement, saying that “we are for having the stabilization zones” but that they first need to see more details coming from the talks, Reuters reported, citing Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
The two-day peace talks that brought the representatives of the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table were also attended by US and Jordanian observers.
The delegation of the armed opposition, represented at the meeting by members of some 15 rebel groups, has so far rejected the idea of safe zones, arguing that it endangers Syria’s territorial integrity. They have also refused to accept Iran’s role as a guarantor state of the ceasefire struck in December.
The next round of Astana talks is scheduled for July, according to Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhamanov.
Obama-initiated campaign of Russophobia still lingers in US – Lavrov
“Sadly, the campaign of Russophobia started by Barack Obama’s administration still lingers in the US,” Lavrov said, speaking at a joint press conference with his Finnish counterpart Timo Soini in Porvoo on Thursday.
“It’s clear that it’s still there today, first of all, in order to try and use that Russophobic card in the domestic political struggle in the US, including by those who failed to accept the results of the election that took place in full accordance with the US Constitution,” Russia’s top diplomat added.
Moscow has been long accused of “all mortal sins” in a situation bordering on “hysteria,” Lavrov said, adding that though the US Congress continues to create inter-agency structures to investigate “Russian threat,” no evidence or supporting accusations against Russia has been presented so far.
“If there are facts, we can discuss them, if there are no facts, we perceive this campaign as pure propaganda aimed at achieving not very plausible goals,” Lavrov said.
Asked about current relations between the US and Russia, Lavrov said that Moscow is seeking to promote “normal, mutually beneficial and pragmatic ties.” This kind of relations may be achieved only when the two countries show “mutual respect,” enjoy “equal rights” and are looking for “balance in perusing their own interests.”
At the same time, Lavrov noted that President Donald Trump showed his intention to step away from anti-Russian rhetoric during his election campaign, which was also evident from his recent telephone talk with President Putin.
On Wednesday, FBI director James Comey, who answered questions at a Senate hearing on Moscow’s alleged meddling in the elections, called Russia the “greatest threat of any nation on Earth, given their intent and capability.”
The White House was quick to distance itself from Comey’s statement, with its spokesman Sean Spicer saying that that was “the view of the FBI.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov abstained from commenting on the matter, saying that what his colleague at the White House said was sufficient.
In April, President Trump said that US relations with Russia may have hit “an all-time low” and the two counties are “not getting along at all.” The statement came after US State Secretary Rex Tillerson held a meeting with President Putin in Moscow during which the countries, nevertheless, agreed to create a working group to find solutions to “smaller problems” and concentrate on bigger issues later.
During a telephone call on Tuesday, Putin and Trump agreed to deepen their cooperation on Syria in an effort to “create the background that would help launch a real peace process” there.
Putin and Trump have decided to “activate the dialogue between the heads of the foreign ministries of both countries who will seek variants to secure the ceasefire regime, stabilize it and control it,” the statement on Kremlin’s website said.