BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An air strike by a U.S.-led coalition flattened an entire neighbourhood of a northern Iraqi town controlled by Islamic State militants, killing dozens of people including civilians, witnesses and security sources said.
The strike targeted an Islamic State bomb-making factory in Hawija overnight on Tuesday, triggering a series of secondary explosions that reduced the surrounding area in the industrial district to rubble.
Residents and security sources put the number of people killed at around 70.
Sixty-seven-year-old Hawija resident Hassan Mahmoud al-Jubbouri said he heard planes overhead for around 10 minutes before the initial explosion, which shattered the windows of his house.
“I ran with my sons and wife and took cover under the staircase. Three to four powerful explosions followed the first blast and I felt the roof of my house was about to collapse over our heads,” he said.
Jubbouri ventured out hours later, accompanying a neighbour to the area, which he compared to the site of a nuclear bomb, with flames and smoke still rising.
“The gunmen were shouting and looked very confused,” Jubbouri said. “I helped pull a family of six from the debris. Their bodies were mutilated. We brought a blanket and gathered all the body parts inside and took them to the cemetery,” he said, adding they buried the remains in a single grave.
Photographs circulated on social media purportedly taken at the site of the explosion showed a scene of devastation, with no building left standing.
In a statement on Wednesday, the coalition said an air strike targeted a “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device facility” in Hawija between 8 am on June 2 and 8 am the following day.
The coalition says it has killed 10,000 Islamic State militants across Iraq and Syria since launching air strikes against the group after it overran around one third of Iraq.
A senior military source in the coalition said he was not aware of the strike in question, but that every effort was made to ensure no civilians were killed: “Since we started air strikes in August last year in Iraq, I have difficulty thinking of any civilian casualties in Iraq, and for thousands of sorties that is good. One is clearly too many.”
Sarhat Qadir, a police chief in Kirkuk province where Hawija is located told Reuters “dozens of terrorists” had been killed in the strike, along with an unknown number of civilians.
A resident of the area in which the explosion took place said Islamic State had a strong presence there and was stockpiling ammunition as well as manufacturing bombs.
The militants had two explosives-rigged tankers ready, he said, putting the number of people killed at 70, including both militants and civilians: “Many families were buried beneath their houses and are believed to have died”.
A security official in Kirkuk, Lieutenant Ibrahim Jawdat, said initial intelligence reports from sources inside Hawija suggested at least 74 people were killed, among them civilians.
Sheikh Anwar al-Asi al-Obeidi, who fled Hawija after Islamic State took over last June, said members of his tribe in the town told him a large number of civilians had been killed, and the industrial district resembled the site of an earthquake.
Reporting by Baghdad Bureau and Isabel Coles in Erbil; Editing by Dominic Evans