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(New York) – Apparent US missile strikes on Idlib in Syria that killed at least seven civilians should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. On September 25, 2014, in statements to the press, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States was looking into reports of civilian casualties in Syria from their strikes but that the US military had “no credible reporting from operational sources” of civilian deaths. 

Three local residents told Human Rights Watch that missiles killed at least two men, two women, and five children, in the early morning hours on September 23 in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib. There is unverified information that the two men could have been members of the extremist Islamist armed group Jabhat al-Nusra. Video footage corroborates the witness accounts that civilians were killed by Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are in the US arsenal.

“The United States and its allies in Syria should be taking all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The US government should investigate possible unlawful strikes that killed civilians, publicly report on them, and commit to appropriate redress measures in case of wrongdoing.”

The residents, who spoke via Skype to Human Rights Watch, said that at approximately 3:30 a.m., a series of missiles struck a compound of the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, including a weapons depot, about one kilometer from the village. Two of the residents said that shortly thereafter other missiles struck two homes in Kafr Deryan itself, killing at least five children, two women, and two men, all of whom they identified by name. While two of the residents said the men were civilians, the third said they were members of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Human Rights Watch is not able to independently verify the men’s identities or whether they were combatants subject to attack. The reported killing of at least seven civilians in strikes in which there may have been no legitimate military target nearby raises concerns that the strikes were unlawful under the laws of war and should be investigated.

All three local residents told Human Rights Watch that Jabhat al-Nusra forces were based about a kilometer from the village in the compound struck in the first missile attacks, but that there were no Jabhat al-Nusra buildings, checkpoints, or vehicles in the vicinity of the strike in the village. The Washington Post reported on September 24 that rebel fighters had said that “airstrikes this week in Kafr Deryan, a village in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, killed about 50 fighters at a base belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group in which they were embedded.” The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a local monitoring group, also said it had identified 11 combatants killed in Kafr Deryan on September 23. The VDC did not name them or indicate the exact location or circumstances in which they were killed. 

All three local residents provided Human Rights Watch with the names of the nine people killed in the attack on the two homes. In one, four Kafr Deryan residents were killed: Ramzia and her son Mahmoud Juma Moaz, and two other children, Zainab Muhanna Barakat and Safa Muhanna Barakat. In the other, Reem al-Haji, and her children Mohamad and Basmla Jahjaj were killed, along with her husband, Abdel Hamid Mohamad Jahjaj, and a second man, Safwan Yahya Iskaff.

Video footage posted on YouTube on September 23 by a local activist who spoke to Human Rights Watch shows some of the civilians injured in the strikes and the aftermath of the attacks. Another video posted by the Shaam News Network showed three children, two who appear to have been killed, and one who appears to have been injured in the missile strikes. An additional video, posted on YouTube by the local activist who spoke to Human Rights Watch, shows two children being rushed to receive medical treatment in the aftermath of the attack, and another shows an adult victim being pulled out of the rubble. One of the local residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch identified this person as Ramzia Mahmoud Juma Moaz.

The activist who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that six additional civilians – three children and three women – were also killed in the strikes on the villages but Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this claim. He said that approximately 15 others, including women and children, were injured.

The US Department of Defense posted a statement on its Facebook page on September 23 in which it confirms that US Central Command conducted eight strikes against the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate, west of Aleppo, purportedly to “disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” on September 23. The US Department of Defense did not identify the area it hit or provide any details about any strike on Kafr Deryan, but the village is west of Aleppo.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported that the missile attacks on Kafr Deryan struck Jabhat al-Nusra’s headquarters, including a weapons depot. According to SNHR, however, secondary explosions caused by the US strikes on the weapons caches led to the collapse of a residence about 100 meters away, causing 12 civilian deaths, including the civilian victims named by the witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

The three residents all said, however, that the civilians were all killed when missiles struck their homes directly, and two of the residents said they had seen weapons remnants at the site of the destroyed homes, suggesting that the strikes directly caused the fatalities.

The local activist told Human Rights Watch that he was at the scene of the attack on the two residences about 10 minutes after the strikes and that he and other activists collected the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes and videotaped them and posted some of the footage of the aftermath of the strikes on YouTube. Human Rights Watch reviewed his footage and has identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that only the US and British governments have. According to the Department of Defense the United States used 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea in its attacks in Syria on September 23, along with airstrikes. The British military did not conduct any military strikes in Syria on September 23.

Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage. The US government should investigate credible allegations of violations of the laws of war, such the strikes on Kafr Deryan, and publish its findings, Human Rights Watch said. In the event of wrongdoing, the United States should ensure accountability and provide appropriate redress. Further, the United States should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians in future attacks.

“Civilians in many parts of Syria are still living under constant threat of airstrikes from their own government,” Houry said. “The US needs to take all necessary measures to protect civilians from their own strikes.”

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