Iraq - Human rights campaigners have criticised the Australian government’s delay in announcing its involvement in two airstrikes believed to have killed children in West Mosul, Iraq.
On Friday, the Australian defence force and the US-led coalition in Iraq made separate announcements on the results of the latest investigations into civilian casualties caused by airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters.
Updated figures show at least 735 civilians have been killed in the US-led coalition’s airstrikes since Operation Inherent Resolve began in 2014.
Recent investigations into 185 reports of civilian casualties, completed in August, confirmed a further 50 deaths.
“Although the [military] coalition takes extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimises the risk of civilian casualties, in some incidents casualties are unavoidable,” the US-led coalition said in a statement.
It is still investigating a further 350 reports of civilian casualties.
At roughly the same time, Australia’s chief of joint operations, Vice-admiral David Johnston, detailed the country’s involvement in two of the incidents.
The most recent, on 7 June, involved two Australian F/A-18 super hornets, which were tasked to a close-quarters firefight between Iraqi forces and Isis militants in West Mosul.
The fighters were within 20 metres of each other and the Iraqi forces found themselves pinned down, according to Johnston.
Two nearby Australian Hornets were called for air back-up, following what Johnston said were normal targeting procedures.
“It was a residential building, but it was assessed a legitimate target,” he said.
A single weapon – a GPS-guided bomb – was dropped on the front of the building and two Isis fighters are believed to have been killed.
Johnston said no civilians had been observed in the area before the strike but it later became apparent that some had been inside, as they “calmly” left the rear of the building that was hit.
“A civilian was either seriously injured or killed as a result of that strike,” he said. “It was a child carried out.”
The Australian fighter pilots reported the incident to the US-led coalition’s headquarters and up the Australian chain of command for investigation.
Johnston said Australian rules of engagement had been followed and the strike had complied with the laws of armed conflict.
The strike had successfully protected Iraqi soldiers on the ground, he said.
In another incident, in March, a group suspected of being Isis fighters had been positioned about 300 metres from Iraqi security forces.
The US-led coalition authorised an airstrike and seven civilians were killed or injured, including a child.
Australian aircraft were not involved in that strike but Australian defence personnel were part of the target decision-making process.
“It appeared the group was wrongly identified [as Isis],” Johnston said, adding that at the time the information that the group was armed had come from a credible and reliable source.
Amnesty International has previously expressed serious concerns about the toll the war was having on civilians.
In a report earlier this year, it found the battle for West Mosul “has caused a civilian catastrophe”.
Civilians were being ruthlessly exploited by Isis, which had moved them into conflict zones, used them as human shields, and prevented escape. They were also being subjected to “relentless and unlawful attacks” by Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition.
On Saturday, Amnesty’s Australian campaign coordinator, Diana Sayed, criticised the delay in publicly revealing Australia’s involvement in civilian casualties.
“We have serious concern about the disregard for civilian lives by all parties to this conflict, and that protection of civilians in West Mosul has not been given utmost priority,” Sayed said.
“It’s extremely disappointing it has taken the Australian government until now to release information about Australia’s involvement in civilian casualties, including the possible killing of a child,” she said.
The US-led coalition has conducted 26,026 strikes since the mission began in August 2014.
It has received 1,250 reports of civilian casualties, 178 of which it deems credible. The reports are typically made by non-government organisations, the military or the media, and are sometimes drawn from social media.
“The percent of engagements that resulted in a report of possible civilian casualties was 2.32%,” the coalition said in a statement on Saturday.
“The percent of engagements that resulted in a credible report of civilian casualties was .33%.”
Airwars, a non-government group monitoring airstrikes and civilian deaths in the Middle East, estimates that close to 5,500 civilians have died in coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
– with Australian Associated Press