The Australian Defence Force has admitted it most likely killed civilians when a F18 jet fired a guided bomb at an Islamic State sniper position during the battle to retake Mosul last year
One of the country’s highest-ranked military generals has conceded an Australian F-18 fighter jet likely killed two civilians with a guided bomb strike on a building in Iraq in May last year.
The military investigated a “credible” claim that its airstrike on a pair of IS snipers also killed two adult civilians and injured two children.
It concluded the deaths were “more likely than not”, but not certain, and maintains US-led Coalition forces had taken all reasonable precautions to avoid hurting civilians.
“Any loss of civilian life is highly regrettable,” Deputy Chief of Joint Operations, Major General Greg Bilton, told reporters in Canberra.
“It is possible that civilian casualties occurred as a result of the airstrike.”
A non-profit war monitoring group suggests the two civilians killed were a husband and wife.
The Australian jet was providing air support while Iraqi ground forces battled IS in West Mosul, which became one of the most violent flashpoints in the push to liberate the city.
On May 3 last year, the F-18 Super Hornet fired a GPS-guided bomb at a sniper position on the upper level of a two-storey residential home.
Major General Bilton said the bomb, fitted with GPS guidance technology, struck the building as intended and destroyed the target.
The weapon was chosen for its “low collateral” properties, including a delayed detonation, to minimise the risk to civilians, he said.
Major General Bilton said IS tactics were responsible for the high civilian death toll in Mosul.
“Daesh had trapped or held hostage civilians,” he said, adding that it was “possible” the four civilians wounded in the Australian strike were being used as “human shields”.
Defence minister Marise Payne said the civilians deaths were "highly regrettable".
"But I think it is very important for us to recognise what a very complex urban environment this was, and the fact we are operating in a warzone, Ms Payne told ABC Radio on Thursday morning.
"Our operators work to the highest standards but regrettably incidents like this happen."
On June 2 last year, US Central Command said Coalition air strikes had killed at least 484 civilians in both Iraq and Syria since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve in June 2014.
Airwars estimates 5,805 civilians were killed in attacks launched by Iraqi and Coalition forces in a window of less than six months – from February 19 to June 19 last year.
Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia had done more than any other country to minimise civilian casualties.
"I think it was unfortunately inevitable that civilians were going to be killed, partly because the so-called Islamic State was putting them in to positions where they knew they would be killed," Mr Jennings told SBS News.
"Unforuntately you're never going to have a clean war where civilians won't be killed. I think we've got as far as modern technology will allow us in being able to prevent unecessary civilian deaths."
NGO tip-off sparked investigation
Australian military officials became aware of the allegation of civilian casualties through reports by Airwars and Amnesty International, the general confirmed.
The ADF has since analysed various video feeds from the day, including video captured by an overhead unmanned drone flown by a Coalition partner. The F-18 jet also captured video on the day.
It concluded there was no evidence there were civilians inside the building.
The man who made the original allegation said the wounded civilians were his “relatives”, but their names are not known.
The general’s description of events closely resembles an Airwars log from “May 1- 5”, around the same time.
“A newly married husband and wife were killed and two young children injured in an airstrike on al Islah al Zirae in West Mosul, according to an eyewitness,” the Airwars log reads.
The airstrike was also recorded in Australia’s official fortnightly updates.
“The Australian aircraft struck a Daesh fighting position and a Daesh heavy weapon site with precision guided munitions over several hours of support,” the May 3 entry reads.
In January, Australia ceased its Super Hornet airstrike operations in Iraq after more than 21,000 hours of flying time.
These latest revalations are not the first time Australian airstrikes have been implicated in civilian deaths during their deployment. In June last year, a Super Hornet strike "seriously injured or killed" a child.
In March, Coalition aircraft bombed a group of suspected IS fighters and killed or wounded seven civilians. Australian aircraft were not involved, but Australians did contribute to the targetting decision.