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U.S.-led airstrike on Syrian city kills more than 100; criticism of air campaign mounts

Warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition pounded an eastern Syrian city Thursday and Friday, killing more than 100 family members of Islamic State jihadists, activists and a monitoring group said. The U.N. condemned the escalating airstrike campaign on the northeastern provinces of the country.

Two coalition airstrikes — on Thursday evening and early Friday morning — on the city of Mayadeen, which lies on a segment of the Euphrates River that straddles Iraq and Syria, killed 106 people, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of activists in Syria.

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"In these two days alone, coalition airstrikes on the city of Mayadeen killed 47 children, and the rest of the victims … the vast majority were women." Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the group, said in a phone interview Friday.

He said that those killed were family members of Islamic State members residing in the municipal building of Mayadeen.

"By what right does the coalition kill women and children, even if they are family of Islamic State fighters?" he asked.

Khaled, an activist with the Civil Action Group, a group of activists from Mayadeen with family members still in the city, could not give an exact death toll but said that the strikes had also targeted the Shaar hospital, a facility converted by Islamic State into a residence, as well as a government building that had become the headquarters of the group's religious police.

"The forklifts are still removing the rubble and finding corpses in the area," he said in a phone interview Friday. He gave only his first name for reasons of security.

"The fire after the strike was so powerful that it spread to school buildings nearby. They only managed to put it out today."

The coalition acknowledged that it had conducted strikes on Mayadeen but said it was still assessing the results of those attacks, according to Army Col. Joe Scrocca, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

"Coalition forces work diligently and deliberately to be precise in our airstrikes," Scrocca said. .

"Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take all reasonable precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk of harm to civilians."

He said all allegations of civilian casualties are compiled in a monthly report that is released to the public.

However, Scrocca insisted that although the goal "has always been for zero civilian casualties," the coalition would "not abandon [its] commitment to [its] partners because of ISIS's brutal tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals and religious sites."

Islamic State is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, the group's acronym in Arabic.

The strikes, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said comprised the deadliest such attack involving Islamic State family members, came hours before a strong condemnation from the U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Raad Al Hussein.

The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries suggested that insufficient precautions had been taken in the attacks, he said in a statement from Geneva released on Friday.

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"The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL, are also falling victim to the escalating airstrikes, particularly in the northeastern governorates," Al Hussein said. "Just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party."

In recent months, the coalition, fighting in concert with a Kurdish-dominated militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, has shifted focus to the northeastern desert provinces of Syria as part of a wide-scale campaign to snatch Raqqa, Islamic State's so-called capital in the country.

It has also ramped up support to rebel groups operating in the country's southeast in a bid to claw back wide swaths of the Syrian-Iraqi border, a vital transit conduit for the jihadist group.

The U.S. military has observed Islamic State leaders and their families flee to Mayadeen in recent months as the military campaign against them has isolated and seized their strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Airstrikes and ground raids have targeted leaders holed up in the eastern city, including the Uzbeki-born operative who helped organize the New Year's Day attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, that left 39 dead.

Chris Woods, director of the London-based independent monitoring group Airwars, said its staffers have seen an uptick in the air assault on eastern Syria during the last week.

"We remain extremely concerned about Raqqa," he said, in light of U.S. and allied forces' activity in the area, which is difficult for reporters and other outside observers to reach given border restrictions. "We're worried about their lack of local knowledge and that rules have been changed to allow them to make more strikes. We're also worried about the lack of public scrutiny."

He said they have seen more airstrikes in recent days near Albo Kamal in the Deir ez Zor area at the Iraqi border, including strikes by Iraqi warplanes, and around Raqqa — two or three strikes a day for the last week.

The coalition has faced mounting criticism as the offensive on the city of Mosul, Islamic State's last bastion in neighboring Iraq, draws to a close.

On Thursday, a Pentagon investigation determined that a U.S. bombing on Mosul's Jadida neighborhood in March had killed at least 105 civilians, an incident that Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's campaign director in the region, said in a statement Thursday was "a tragedy that alerted the world to the horrors being inflicted upon Iraqi civilians."

"While we welcome the U.S. investigation into the Jadida airstrike, we are curious to know whether any lessons were learned and what steps were taken to ensure such horrors do not occur again."

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), condemned the Mosul attack in a statement Thursday, exhorting the coalition to back up its public concern about "civilians' wellbeing" with "action" and make the protection of civilians "a strategic priority for counter-ISIS operations."

The group recommended that the coalition avoid the use of airstrikes as "a primary tool in densely populated areas" and that troops practice "tactical patience" in their advance.

"The bottom line is that ISIS wants mass casualty events," said CIVIC executive director Federico Borello. "The U.S. and Iraqis should have known better and not given it to them."

Bulos, a special correspondent, reported from Amman, Jordan. Staff writer Hennessey-Fiske reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and staff writer Hennigan from Washington.

Twitter: @nabihbulos

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UPDATES:

12:30 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.

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