The Defence Force has confirmed an Australian airstrike in Iraq in 2017 may have lead to the deaths of up to 18 civilians.
A 12-month long investigation has found that between six and 18 civilians, including children, may have been killed in the attack in Mosul on June 13, 2017.
It also said it was not possible to determine if it was the result of the Australian airstrike, the nearby Coalition airstrikes, or from other actors.
Chief of Joint Operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, says the Australian strike was requested by Iraqi Security Forces and was in full compliance with the law of armed conflict and applicable rules of engagement.
“The Australian Defence Force takes all feasible precautions to minimise the risk of civilian casualties,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.
“On this occasion, it was assessed that the enemy intended to attack Iraqi forces from the targeted location, threatening imminent loss of life or serious injury.”
The investigation found the strikes occurred during operations to re-take West Mosul as Islamic State fighters were also attacking civilians and army forces with small arms, heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenades.
Coalition forces identified three enemy personnel in a building and four enemy personnel in the adjacent courtyard, armed with heavy weapons.
“Based upon the proximity of the enemy to the Iraqi forces, the nature of the target and the circumstances of the fighting in Mosul at the time, I can confirm that this action complied with Australia’s rules of engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.
Post-strike assessments confirmed the 500lb precision guided munition struck the intended target and achieved the effect desired by the Iraqi ground commander.
The civilian casualties were claimed to have been located in a building in the vicinity of the Australian and Coalition strikes.
Air Marshal Hupfeld said that while there was no specific intelligence to indicate civilians were present at the targeted site, it was impossible to be sure under the urgent circumstances facing the Iraqi forces at the time.
“There is a degree of uncertainty surrounding this incident. We know that the Australian strike does not precisely correspond with the information provided in the claim, however it was close by.
“We do not definitively know how these people were killed.
“But we do know from our review of the events that our aircrew made no error in this mission. They delivered their ordnance precisely onto the designated target in accordance with their rules of engagement. All authorities for the strike were valid and lawful.
“We also know that Daesh deliberately and deceptively caused civilian casualties by concealing non-combatants under fighting positions and exposing their fighters to induce Coalition airstrikes,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.
“Any loss of civilian life is highly regrettable and we treat all allegations seriously. Ultimately we have determined that it is possible civilians were unintentionally killed by the Coalition during these strikes.”
Australia was first advised of the potential claim in January 2018. The Coalition assessed the claim to be credible in December 2018 and announced the finding today.
Australia has previously announced involvement in three separate potential civilian casualty allegations resulting from strikes conducted during Operation Okra. These all occurred during the Mosul offensive on 30 March 2017, 3 May 2017, and 7 June 2017.
Australian strike aircraft concluded operations in January 2018.