BEIRUT — The United States said Friday that an airstrike targeted al-Qaeda militants in Syria, but residents charged that the powerful attack killed scores of civilians in a nearby mosque.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the United States believes that the strike late Thursday killed “dozens” of members of the terrorist group. Separately, a U.S. official insisted the raid was based on verified human intelligence, targeting al-Qaeda groups gathered to discuss future operations.
But local activists and a monitoring group said the airstrike hit a mosque in the western Aleppo countryside during a religious gathering, killing at least 46 people and trapping more under the rubble.
Reached by phone, residents in the town of Jinah described a series of powerful blasts that shook the ground and sent civilians fleeing from the site, many of them dazed and bleeding.
The United States has struck dozens of locations in northwestern Syria, where an al-Qaeda-linked alliance of rebel groups known as Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, is now the ascendent force. The area is also home to an assortment of other rebel groups, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Thursday’s attack involved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb, the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Three residents told The Washington Post that at least 200 people had gathered in the mosque and a nearby building for religious teaching sessions at the time of the U.S. attack.
“The mosque in al-Jinah was destroyed. Bodies filled the space” said Mohamed al-Shaghal, a journalist who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring network, described a “massacre” and said the dead were mostly civilians. Photographs from the area showed rescue workers pulling mangled bodies from a mound of rubble.
Aerial imagery appeared to confirm that much of the northern section of Jinah’s mosque was destroyed, although it was unclear whether the strike was a direct one.
The U.S. official said the attack included a follow-up airstrike. Mohamed Shakourdi, a local activist, said it came as people streamed out of the mosque. “They were running as a fourth rocket hit,” he said.
The mosque was believed to have housed several displaced families from the nearby city of Aleppo, after government forces leveled much of the area during a months-long campaign to recapture its eastern districts.
“Whether U.S. drones directly targeted the mosque at al-Jinah as some allege — or it was instead caught up in a U.S. drone strike in the immediate vicinity — a significant number of civilians died at the scene, according to the White Helmets, local media and casualty monitors,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a Britain-based group that tracks allegations of civilian casualties.
The organization said the rate of civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, as well as unilateral U.S. actions, was rising “steeply” in both Syria and Iraq.
“Minimizing harm to noncombatants on the battlefield needs to remain a central priority, not an afterthought,” said Woods.
The northwestern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo are home to hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by fighting, as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad box the remnants of a six-year-long armed rebellion into a shrinking sliver of territory along the country’s border with Turkey.
A shaky nationwide cease-fire has been in place since the start of the year, allowing for several rounds of largely fruitless peace talks between government and rebel officials. That detente has left what remains of the armed rebellion to turn in on itself, with the al-Qaeda-led Tahrir al-Sham growing increasingly powerful.
But the U.S. air campaign against the group is also believed to have spread fear among its ranks.
Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command in Syria, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in an airstrike on his car in late February, and the U.S. Central Command said that a separate bombing raid on an al-Qaeda training camp in January killed more than 100 militants.
Activists and journalists in northeastern Syria said the group has become more cautious about large gatherings, including those such as Thursday’s prayer gathering in Jinah, often choosing to travel by motorcycle instead of by car, and without circulating movement plans ahead of time.
Russian and Syrian aircraft are also known to operate in the area, turning the battlefield into a microcosm of the geopolitical tensions that have come to define Syria’s war.
Senior U.S. military officials have called for increased talks between Washington and Moscow to “deconflict” operations and make sure there are no collisions between aircraft.
Gibbons-Neff reported from Washington. Heba Habib in Stockholm and Zakaria Zakaria in Urfa, Turkey, contributed to this report.