WASHINGTON — The Defense Department said on Wednesday that its investigation of the American airstrike on a mosque complex near Aleppo, Syria, in March found that it was legal and appropriate, and that it resulted in one possible civilian casualty, not dozens as human rights groups had asserted.
The Pentagon said a meeting of Al Qaeda members was being held in the structure. But, the Pentagon said, the commanders who ordered the strike were never told, as they should have been, that the structure had a madrasa, or religious school, on one side and a mosque on the other.
Human rights officials disputed the Defense Department investigation findings.
“We found no evidence to support the allegations that the mosque was a meeting place for members of Al Qaeda in Syria or other armed groups,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. She also criticized the investigation for failing to include interviews with anyone who was on the ground in Al Jinah, the site of the strike, when it happened.
Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager, who led the investigation, said the building that was bombed was being used as a meeting site for around two dozen Qaeda members. He said that American planners took care to make sure that they only hit the building where the meeting was said to be underway.
General Bontrager, deputy director for operations at the military’s Central Command, said that investigators “considered media reports that indicated a large number of civilians were killed, but our investigation did not uncover evidence to support those claims.” But he acknowledged that investigators did not visit the scene or talk to people on the ground there.
He said that investigators believed there was one possible civilian casualty, and that the possible victim was a “smaller-in-stature person accompanying an adult into the meeting site.” He said that the investigation did not show whether this person survived the attack.
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