Christopher Pyne says the deaths, which occurred during operations between Iraqi and allied forces, are ‘deeply regrettable’
Australian Defence Force officials have admitted between six and 18 civilians were killed in a airstrike involving Australian jets, but said they could not determine if Australian or allied missiles caused the deaths.
The defence minister, Christopher Pyne, described the deaths as “deeply regrettable” but said the 12-month investigation into the strike on 13 June 2017 could not come to a conclusion over who was at fault.
The deaths occurred during joint operations between Iraqi and allied forces to take back Mosul from Isis, which had designated the city the Iraqi capital of its so-called caliphate.
“After a thorough investigation conducted by the Australian Defence Force it’s been determined that between six and 18 civilians were killed in a Coalition air strike and that an Australian platform may have been part of that air strike, may have been responsible,” Pyne told the Nine Network.
“It’s impossible to definitively say whether it was an Australian missile that caused the deaths, but I can say that it’s deeply regrettable.
“Obviously we do everything we can to avoid a civilian casualty. The Isis fighters, there were seven who were using heavy weapons to attack the Iraqi forces in Mosul.
“The Australian platform was operating entirely within the rules of engagement, and under the law of warfare, and so there will be no discipline for the pilots involved, because they were doing exactly the job that they were supposed to do.
“It was obviously tremendously upsetting that civilians were killed, and as I say, we can’t be sure it was Australians, but in the fullness of transparency, we’re prepared to say that we could have been responsible.”
In a briefing, the chief of joint operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said two Australian Super Hornets had been requested by Iraqi security forces as part of the strike, which also involved other coalition forces.
He said it was “not possible” to determine which missiles were responsible and if the casualties “occurred as a result of the Australian airstrike, the nearby Coalition airstrikes, or from other actors”.
“The Australian defence force takes all feasible precautions to minimise the risk of civilian casualties,” Hupfeld said in a statement.
“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.”
Australian forces were called into the area as part of joint operations to take back west Mosul.
Hupfeld said there was no “specific intelligence” indicating civilians were present at the targeted site, but admitted there was “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,” he said.
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“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 [Isis] deliberately and deceptively caused civilian casualties by concealing non-combatants under fighting positions and exposing their fighters to induce Coalition airstrikes.
“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 not made aware of the allegations its forces had been involved in civilian deaths during the strike until January 2018. The investigation concluded in December.
Australia has previously announced “involvement” in three seperate allegations where civilians were among the death toll from airstrikes which formed part of the Mosul offensive, Operation Okra, in March, May and June 2017. Defence said Australian strike aircraft operations concluded in January 2018.