February 01, 2019 00:01:54
Australian Defence officials have revealed two RAAF fighter jets were involved in a bombing mission in Iraq which led to the death of up to 18 Iraqi civilians.
The incident occurred in June 2017, at the height of the bloody battle by Iraqi and Coalition forces to retake the northern city of Mosul.
Iraqi security forces came across seven Islamic State fighters, and rushed to call in a Coalition air strike.
Two F/A-18F Super Hornets were among the jets deployed to the area, both dropping GPS-guided missiles on the target.
But Australian officials have now confirmed there were innocent civilians in the proximity of the blast.
“The Coalition assesses that between six and 18 civilians may have been killed, and that’s based on an assessment of population densities,” Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, Chief Joint Operations revealed.
“It’s not possible to determine if the civilian casualties occurred as a result of the Australian airstrike, the nearby Coalition airstrike, or other actors.”
Air Marshal Hupfeld said Australian forces would never take part in such strikes unless satisfied there was minimal risk, based on the advice from the Iraqi forces.
“We do know from our review of events that our air crew made no error in this mission,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.
The first reports of significant casualties were published by the website Airwars, which monitors harm to civilians as a result of airstrikes in the Middle East and North Africa.
The website initially suggested up to 50 people could have been killed.
Some local reports suggested the innocent victims could have been families.
Six-month delay between incident and Australian officials being informed
Australian officials were informed in January 2018, and a 12-month investigation followed. Investigators did not travel to the site of the airstrike as part of their inquiries because of the delay in becoming aware of the reports.
Air Marshal Hupfeld conceded that had it been clear civilians were close by, the airstrike would never have been allowed.
But, he is not prepared to blame Iraqi security forces for the situation, arguing they were under extreme pressure from IS fighters at the time of the attack.
“The assessment was that … the likelihood of civilian casualties or the civilians present there was low, but there’s always the likelihood,” he said.
“The action in Mosul was the most ferocious air campaign that we have seen in our generation.
“It is an unfortunate consequence of war that these civilian casualties have occurred.”
Australia’s bombing mission in the region finished at the end of 2017.
There have been more than 30,000 Coalition air strikes in the region, and the Australian Defence Force said it would thoroughly investigate any alleged civilian casualties in missions involving RAAF aircraft.
Air Marshal Hupfeld said any claims of compensation would be dealt with by the Coalition’s central command, and not directly by the ADF.