Government confirms involvement in two air strikes killing over 70 civilians in total

Dutch Air Force F-16 in the Middle East
A Dutch F-16 on the ground in the Middle East. September 2015.. (photo: Sgt1 Eva Klijn / Defensie)

The Netherlands was involved in two airstrikes in Iraq in 2015 in which at least 74 people, including civilians, were killed, Minister Ank Bijleveld of Defense confirmed in a letter to parliament. The Ministry of Defense was aware of civilian casualties from the start, but did not report them to the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament. This is the first time the Ministry released details bout air strikes carried out by Dutch F-16 fighter jets in the fight against terrorist organization ISIS, NOS reports.

The first of the two airstrikes was on a bomb factory in Hawija on June 3rd, 2015. At least 70 people, including children according to eye witnesses, were killed and an entire neighborhood was destroyed. It is considered one of the bloodiest attacks by the international coalition in the fight against ISIS. 

The information that this attack was based on was incomplete, Bijleveld wrote to parliament on Monday. It was assumed that no people were living in the area around the bomb factory, which turned out not to be the case. The parties involved were also surprised by the large amount of ammunition in the factory, which caused a massive explosion, the Minister said.

Bijleveld said she "deeply egrets the death of civilian casualties", especially because "our actions were aimed at preventing as much collateral damage as possible, and especially civilian casualties", she wrote. "However, this was a war situation where these risks can never be completely excluded."

After the attack, the Ministry of Defense fairly quickly realized that something had gone wrong. A Dutch F-16 pilot immediately carried out a Battle Damage Assessment, revealing that there was "unintended collateral damage", Bijleveld wrote. The United States also investigated and informed the Ministry of Defense on 15 June 2015 that 70 people were killed in the bombing. According to the Ministry, the Americans told the Netherlands that both civilians and ISIS fighters were killed, but it was not possible to determine who was an ISIS fighter and who was a civilian afterwards. 

According to NOS, the American Pentagon previously told it and NRC that 70 civilians were killed in this bombing.

On 22 June 2015, a week after the Americans informed The Hague of the civilian casualties, then Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis wrote to the Tweede Kamer that no civilians died as a result of Dutch actions. "That is wrong", Bijleveld now said in her letter to parliament. 

Hennis refused to comment to NOS about this, saying that further comments are up to the current Minister.

The second air strike, in which a family of four was killed, happened on 21 September 2015, Bijleveld said. A house targeted in Mosul was thought to be an ISIS headquarters, but this information turned out to be wrong. 

According to Bijleveld, she is now able to share details about these two bombings because the Netherlands is no longer participating in the air strikes and reporting information therefore "no longer entails direct risks for operational and personal safety".

The surviving relatives of the victims cannot claim compensation from the Netherlands, Bijleveld said. The Public Prosecution Service investigated both cases and concluded that nothing unlawful happened. And Iraq, not the Netherlands, is responsible for handling individual claims, according to the Minister. 

Nevertheless, the Dutch government is looking into creating a fund for "the communities in question", Bijleveld said. She stressed that this is by no means a recognition of guilt, but a sign of goodwill towards the affected areas. 

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