BAGHDAD – Local authorities in Iraq's western Anbar province said government airstrikes destroyed a women and children's hospital in Islamic State-held territory near the city of Fallujah. At least 22 women and children were killed, a local hospital official said.
The Anbar provincial council said Iraqi warplanes were targeting IS militants in the village of Nassaf, 2 kilometers (a mile) south of Fallujah, when the hospital there was hit on Thursday. In a statement sent to journalists, the council added that at least 53 women and children were killed and wounded in the attack, without providing a breakdown of the alleged casualties.
It called on the Iraqi defense ministry to accept responsibility for the attack and to exert caution when targeting areas with high civilian populations.
A senior official overseeing operations at several Fallujah-area hospitals said at least 22 women and children were killed in the airstrike. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to talk to reporters. Falah al-Assawi, a member of the Anbar provincial council, confirmed the attack, also blaming government warplanes.
The fall of Fallujah in January 2014 started the Islamic State group's dramatic blitz across Iraq. Since then, Islamic State group fighters have been advancing in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq's Sunni minority. Iraqi troops lost the provincial capital, Ramadi, in May after more than a year of fierce clashes. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the province amid continued fighting.
In July 2014, Human Rights Watch said Iraq's security forces killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds of others in indiscriminate airstrikes on five cities — among them, Fallujah. Among the first orders given by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after he was named Iraqi premier in September was for Iraqi security forces to stop shelling areas populated by civilians.
A spokesman for the Iraqi defense ministry, Yahya Rasool, on Friday rejected claims of the airstrike. He said Iraqi troops do not target hospitals, schools or other civilian facilities, even if they are occupied by militants.
"Airstrikes by Iraqi forces are conducted on targets linked to the (Islamic State) terrorist organization," he said. "We carry out airstrikes based on information that we receive from intelligence forces ... We have specific instructions to avoid hitting any targets that provide services to the civilians."
Aamaq, an IS-affiliated news agency, posted an online video late Thursday purportedly showing the aftermath of the attack on the hospital, with men, women and children covered in blood, bandages and scars. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video.