US claims 2019 airstrike that hit Syrian women and children was justified. The US military has confirmed for the first time a 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed up to 80 people, mostly women and children, but claimed the strike was justified as it killed Islamic State fighters who were attacking coalition forces.

The confirmation from US Central Command followed a report by the New York Times in which former and current Pentagon officials alleged there had been a cover-up of a likely war crime. Central Command argued that because some women and children had taken up arms for IS, whether by indoctrination or choice, they “could not strictly be classified as civilians”.

The strike was carried out on 18 March 2019 on the town of Baghuz on the Euphrates River, which forms the Syrian-Iraq border, where Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with US air support, were besieging the last organised remnants of IS in Syria.

The Times report said two bombs were dropped on a crowd of women and children, trying to escape the fighting on the banks of the Euphrates, who had been identified as civilians by a US drone operated from Qatar. It said the drone operators in Al-Udeid airbase were stunned when they saw the first 500lb bomb dropped by a US F-15E plane, and then a second, 2,000lb bomb dropped on the survivors.

“Who dropped that?” one analyst asked on a chat system used by those monitoring the drone footage, according to the report. Within minutes, a legal officer flagged a possible war crime that required investigation, and ordered the drone footage and other evidence. The initial battle damage assessment put the death toll at 70. But no independent inquiry was ever carried out.

The air force lawyer, Lt Col Dean Korsak, took the case to the Pentagon inspector general, but the subsequent report was stripped of any mention of the strike. Korsak subsequently sent details of the incident to the Senate armed services committee.

“I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this,” Korsak wrote to the committee, in emails obtained by the Times. “Senior ranking US military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process.”

Gene Tate, a civilian analyst in the inspector general’s office, who complained about the lack of action, was forced out of his job.

The New York Times investigation found that the airstrike at Baghuz was called in by a shadowy US special forces unit known as Task Force 9, operating independently from the operations centre in Qatar, and which appears to have side-stepped the procedures put in place to minimise civilian casualties.

The Central Command said the context for the airstrikes was a desperate last stand by IS, referred to by the alternative acronym Isis.

“The Isis pocket included thousands of fighters and family members including women and children,” said Capt Bill Urban, the Central Command spokesman. “The remaining fighters including some women and child combatants, along with many Isis family members, including some who were likely held against their will, decided to make a determined stand in an area that included buildings, tunnels and cliffs. Multiple entreaties to Isis to allow family members to depart the area were rebuffed, and thousands of family members remained in the area of the fighting.”

Urban said that on the morning of 18 March, IS fighters launched a counterattack on SDF positions that lasted several hours, during which an SDF position was in danger of being overrun, and US special forces called in an airstrike. He said that they were unaware that a drone with a high-definition video footage was in the area and relied on a standard definition feed from another drone.

According to the Central Command account, the drones over Baghuz had used all their Hellfire missiles, so the air support available came from F-15s, which dropped three bombs.

The bombs killed at least 16 IS fighters, according to the US military assessment. It also confirmed four civilian deaths.

“The investigations were unable to conclusively characterise the status of more than 60 other casualties that resulted from these strikes. The reason for this uncertainty is that multiple armed women and at least one armed child were observed in the video, and the exact mixture of armed and unarmed personnel could not be conclusively determined,” Urban said.

“Likely, a majority of those killed were also combatants at the time of the strike, however, it is also highly likely that there were additional civilians killed by these two strikes,” he added. An investigation ordered by special forces commanders found the strike was justified as self-defence, and “proportional due to the unavailability of smaller ordinance at the time of the request”.

As a consequence however, procedures were changed to require high definition video surveillance before such strikes are ordered, and that the “strike cell” on the ground should coordinate with any coalition aircraft.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Urban said.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has called for Nato to take “concrete steps” to solve the migrant crisis on Europe’s border as dozens of asylum seekers reportedly broke through Poland’s border defences with Belarus.

Morawiecki said that Poland, Lithuania and Latvia may ask for consultations under article 4 of the Nato charter, indicating they believe their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

European countries have warned that the increasingly tense situation on the frontier may lead to a conflict with Belarus, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of encouraging thousands of people from the Middle East to travel to Europe’s borders.

Belarus and its main backer, Russia, would probably react angrily to any new deployment of Nato troops to eastern Europe. This week Russia dispatched nuclear-capable bombers and paratroopers on training missions to Belarus as the countries tested their joint air defences.

Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus, has also vowed to retaliate against new EU sanctions that are due to be announced on Monday.

The sanctions are expected to target Belarusian officials, as well as travel agencies and airlines that have helped ferry migrants to Belarus. European officials have managed to strike deals with a number of airlines to limit flights with migrants to Belarus.

The EU and Belarusian foreign policy chiefs spoke directly about the migrant crisis for the first time on Sunday.

Josep Borrell said he had spoken to Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, by phone about “the precarious humanitarian situation” at the Belarus-Poland border.

“The current situation is unacceptable and must stop. People should not be used as weapons,” Borrell said in a tweet.

In Belarus’s statement about the conversation, Makei said any sanctions would be “hopeless” and “counterproductive”.

On Saturday, the Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines said it would halt flights to Minsk “due to the difficult situation on the Belarus-Poland border and because most of the travellers on our flights to Minsk are Syrian citizens”. Turkey has also blocked flights for migrants from Istanbul.

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