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US military launches official investigation of disputed drone strike that reportedly killed civilian

<i>Omar Albam/AP</i><br/>Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi
Omar Albam/AP
Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi

By Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — An official investigation has been launched by US Central Command into the May 3 drone strike in Syria that reportedly killed a civilian instead of the intended senior al-Qaeda target.

A statement from CENTCOM on Wednesday said that the civilian casualty credibility assessment recently completed has become an official 15-6 investigation. CNN reported earlier this month that CENTCOM was preparing to launch the formal investigation.

“The civilian casualty credibility assessment process has become an AR 15-6 investigation,” the CENTCOM statement on Wednesday said. “Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, commander of [Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve], appointed a general officer as the investigating officer, effective June 23, 2023.”

The investigation comes eight weeks after the drone strike which was targeting a senior al-Qaeda leader. Despite confidence from senior CENTCOM officials in the aftermath of the strike that they had killed an al-Qaeda leader, family members of the person reportedly killed in the strike said he was a farmer with no terrorism ties.

The family identified the man killed as 56-year-old Loutfi Hassan Mesto, a father of 10.

CENTCOM officials knew it would take time to identify the person killed in the strike. Nevertheless, the day of the operation, CENTCOM commander Gen. Erik Kurilla ordered a tweet be sent from the command’s official Twitter account announcing the strike.

“At 11:42 am local Syrian time on 3 May, US Central Command Forces conducted a unilateral strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader,” the tweet said. “We will provide more information as operational details become available.”

CENTCOM has not provided more details about the strike.

The formal 15-6 investigation is the latest in a drawn-out timeline following the strike. It took two weeks for CENTCOM to begin the civilian casualty assessment, which started a week after The Washington Post presented information to CENTCOM about the strike potentially killing a civilian instead of the intended target.

Asked in May about the strike, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a news briefing that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has “complete confidence” in the department’s civilian harm mitigation efforts.

“I think our record speaks for itself in terms of how seriously we take these,” he said. “Very few countries around the world do that. The secretary has complete confidence that we will continue to abide by the policies that we put into place.”

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