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US Strikes Killed Nearly 500 Civilians in 2017, Pentagon Says

United States military actions killed 499 civilians in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen last year, the Pentagon said on Friday in a report that was a month overdue.

The report, which covers counterterrorism airstrikes and ground operations around the world, added that “more than 450 reports of civilian casualties from 2017 remained to be assessed,” which means that the number of acknowledged deaths could increase. It also said that 169 civilians were injured in American strikes.

The report does not list any civilian casualties in Somalia, where nongovernmental organizations and local officials have pinned scores of civilian deaths on American or American-backed military actions.

The Defense Department “has no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. strikes in Somalia in 2017,” the report said. “One 2017 report of civilian casualties in Somalia remains under investigation.”

The report also said there were no credible claims of civilian casualties in Libya.

Such discrepancies are not exclusive to the Trump administration. During both Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies, accounts of strikes from American and nongovernmental organization sources were so at odds that they often seemed to be describing different events.

A 2016 executive order signed by Mr. Obama, and later enshrined by Congress, mandated that the Defense Department give an annual accounting of the number of civilians killed in American counterterrorism strikes around the world. Human rights groups criticized the Trump administration when the May 1 deadline for the first report came and went.

After its release, the report was also condemned by organizations that track civilian casualties.

“The Defense Department has deemed that the vast majority of claims of civilian casualties are not credible without ever investigating them,” Daphne Eviatar, a director with Amnesty International USA, said in an email. “Its numbers therefore likely severely undercount the actual civilian death toll.”

She called on the government to “meaningfully investigate all claims of civilian casualties and to be transparent about who is killed and harmed in U.S. military operations.”

In August, 10 civilians, including three children, were killed in a raid by foreign and Somali forces on a farm in southern Somalia, a deputy governor told reporters. At the time, the United States military confirmed that it had supported a counterterrorism operation in the area, and said it would look into the allegations. The report released on Friday does not mention the episode.

But the deaths raised questions about growing American military involvement in Somalia after President Trump approved expanded operations, often in support of Somali forces, against the Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda.

The American-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said this week in its latest monthly report that coalition actions had resulted in 892 civilian deaths since the start of the war in 2014. But data compiled by Airwars, a nonprofit that tracks reports of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, showed a far higher number — 6,259 since the start of the war.

“We acknowledge differences exist between U.S. military assessments of the number of civilian casualties and reporting from NGOs,” Maj. Audricia Harris, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an email. She attributed the discrepancies to different reporting practices, and also said that the groups might have been misled by false claims from American adversaries.

“NGO reports of strikes attributed to the U.S. military, particularly their identification of civilian deaths, may be further complicated by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations,” Major Harris said.

But several Defense Department officials acknowledged privately that the Pentagon’s decision not to publicly release a breakdown of numbers by country gives more fuel to critics who say the department is trying to blur the civilian death numbers.

Asked why the Pentagon did not release such a breakdown, Major Harris said that “the discrete numbers of casualties for each engagement that may have resulted in civilian casualties are in a classified annex to preserve operational security.”

The Pentagon said that it takes a number of steps to avoid civilian casualties, and to compensate families of civilians killed by American strikes. Among them, officials said, are performing rigorous intelligence assessments before a strike to determine whether the area is free of civilians and “taking steps to ensure military objectives and civilians are clearly distinguished.”

The report asserted that “although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, no force in history has been more committed to limiting harm to civilians than the U.S. military.” It was unclear what Defense Department officials based that assertion on.

by Helene Cooper

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