Friday prayers were cancelled in rebel-held parts of northern Syria after an airstrike that struck a crowded mosque, killing at least 40 people and wounding many others, Syrian opposition activists said.
A powerful Syrian opposition group and other opposition activists blamed the U.S.-led coalition for the airstrike on the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in the Jeeneh district in Aleppo province. The coalition has been targeting the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria for more than two years.
The U.S. Central Command based in Tampa, Florida, said separately that it had carried out an airstrike on an al-Qaida "meeting location" in the nearby Idlib province, killing "several terrorists." It said in a statement that Idlib has been a significant safe haven for al-Qaida in recent years. The statement recalled an airstrike in January that it said destroyed an al-Qaida training camp where more than 100 fighters were being trained in terror tactics.
The activists, however, claimed the airstrike had hit a mosque in the west Aleppo countryside near Idlib province. Bahaa al-Halaby, an opposition activist based in northern Syria, said the Thursday night airstrike hit as about 250 people had gathered at the mosque for prayers or to attend a religious lesson. Mosques are usually crowded on Thursday night ahead of Friday, the day of communal prayers in the Muslim weekend.
"This was one of the worst massacres committed in the area," al-Halaby said.
An Islamic networking group as Advocacy and Intimation is known to be active at the mosque where religious lessons are offered to the local population, according to al-Halaby and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also described the attack as a "massacre."
Jihadi and militant websites said the group, which aims to encourage people to adhere to Islam by peaceful means, was holding a weekly meeting with about 250 people in attendance. The group has branches in other countries. Footage from the scene showed volunteers putting out fires and pulling victims from the rubble.
The Observatory and al-Halaby said Friday prayers were cancelled in rebel-held parts of Aleppo province and the nearby Idlib region, adding that such decisions are not uncommon where mosques have been targeted in the past.
The Observatory said the airstrike on the mosque in Jeeneh killed 46 while the Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group, said 40 were killed. Such discrepancies are not uncommon in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Syria.
The powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group also said the airstrike was carried out by the U.S.-led coalition, adding that "the targeting mosques and places of worship is a war crime."
Russian and Syrian aircraft are known to operate in the opposition-held region.