Iraq's F-16 'destroyed' two ISIS targets in Syria, the air force announced. Photo: Iraqi Air Force
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s air force struck two ISIS targets across the border in Syria on Tuesday, hitting a total of 44 militants, it announced in a statement.
“Our jets hit two targets, one of them being a hideout of 30 ISIS militants preparing to hold an important meeting for their criminal leadership,” the air force stated.
A second strike hit the hideout of 14 “inghimasi” – the name given to militants who infiltrate an area and then blow themselves up.
The two hideouts were located in the Sousa area, in the Euphrates River valley of Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, a few kilometres from the border with Iraq.
The air force said their F-16s carried out the strikes based on information from the Directorate of Intelligence and Counter-terrorism.
Iraq has conducted cross-border airstrikes several times, deeming it a security necessity. ISIS militants have been pushed into a last pocket of territory on the Syrian side of the border.
The US-led coalition estimates there are some 2,500 ISIS fighters in the area, spokesperson Col. Sean Ryan told Rudaw by email on Tuesday.
Previous estimates had put the number of militants holding out in the area at 2,000.
The fight against the militants, led on the ground by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been slow. The ISIS fighters are battle-hardened and ideologically driven. They have also taken advantage of recent bouts of bad weather to launch deadly counter-attacks.
After weeks of stalemate, the SDF made advances last week and cracked ISIS lines to enter Hajin town.
Hajin hospital loses protected status
On Monday, the coalition announced that they could target a hospital in Hajin ISIS had used to engage their forces on December 9.
“By these actions, ISIS caused the hospital to lose its protected status afforded by the Law of Armed Conflict by using a facility otherwise protected under the Geneva Conventions,” the coalition stated.
Throughout four years of conflict, ISIS has ignored international law governing war and has used health facilities, schools, and religious buildings to launch attacks. It has also repeatedly used human shields.
"ISIS has no regard for human life. As we close in on them, they are getting more and more desperate and are hiding behind the safety of mosques, hospitals, and other protected sites," said the coalition’s commanding general for special operations, Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson.
Ryan said they have recently discovered militants using mosques as “command and control nodes.”
The “Coalition strikes only valid military objectives after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality and distinction. We continue to conduct our strikes in a manner that minimizes their impact on civilian populations and infrastructures,” he explained.
The coalition has been criticized by rights groups for high casualty figures, especially when battling ISIS in the urban centres of Mosul and Raqqa.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 1,300 civilians have escaped ISIS-held territory in the last month, most of them in the past week. In the same time, they documented the deaths of 196 civilians.
The coalition does not have confirmed figures on the number of civilians within the area they are now militarily engaging ISIS. The United Nations has put the number at around 10,000, expressing concern for their safety.