BEIRUT — At least 40 people, mostly women and children, were killed Saturday by US-led airstrikes on the last pocket held by Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, a war monitor and Syrian state media reported.
The coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It maintains that it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties, and looks into all strikes to determine the credibility of claims in the media.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the early Saturday airstrikes hit homes in Abu al-Hassan village, near the town of Hajin, which lies along the border with Iraq in Deir Ezzor province.
Abdul-Rahman said the airstrikes killed at least 43 people, including 17 children and 12 women. He said it was not immediately clear if the men killed in the strikes were militants.
The US-led coalition has been backing a Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting to expel the jihadists from the pocket around the village.
Syrian state news agency SANA also reported the strikes, saying 40 were killed in the remote area of Buqaan, another village next to Abu al-Hassan, in Deir Ezzor province.
“It’s the highest death toll in coalition air strikes since the SDF launched its attack against the IS pocket” in September, Observatory chief Rami Abdul-Rahman said.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency also reported 40 killed, quoting a medical official in the Hajin area.
Activist Omar Abou Leila, who monitors the war in Deir Ezzor from Europe, also confirmed the strikes but said it was difficult to verify the death toll. Abou Leila said IS militants are preventing civilians from leaving the area, resulting in the high casualty toll among them.
The Observatory has recorded at least 191 civilians killed since September 10, including 65 children and 45 women. They are mostly Iraqis and believed to include family members of IS militants, the Observatory added.
Speaking to The Associated Press in Iraq Saturday, the coalition’s Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika described the fight against IS as “difficult.”
“We never thought or said this fight would be easy. These are some of the most determined fighters and they’ve had a lot of time to prepare their defensive positions, so this isn’t an easy fight, and our Syrian Democratic Force partners with coalition support are taking the fight every day to the enemy,” Ghika said.
IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” in land it controlled.
But the jihadist group has since lost most of it to various offensives in both countries.
In Syria, the group has seen its presence reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and the pocket in Deir Ezzor.
The SDF in September announced an assault to oust the jihadists from the eastern pocket, which includes the town of Hajin and the village of Al-Shaafa.
The alliance made slow advances until last month when a tough jihadist fightback pushed the SDF out of the whole of the IS pocket.
Following the setback, hundreds of Kurdish fighters were deployed to the area’s outskirts as reinforcements.
But the SDF then put the offensive on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia leading the SDF to be “terrorists,” while its NATO ally the United States has depended on them to fight IS in Syria.
On Sunday, the SDF said it was resuming its offensive against IS after “intensive contacts” with the coalition and “strong diplomatic activity” to defuse the crisis.
Since 2014, the coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for over 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups put the number killed much higher.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.