A top US Air Force official on Wednesday denied claims that civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria are soaring under President Donald Trump, who has given greater leeway to battlefield commanders.
Airwars, a London-based collective of journalists and researchers that tracks civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, this week said it has seen numbers jump since Trump came into power.
The group estimates as many as 366 civilians were killed in Iraq and Syria in April alone.
Another Britain-based group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Tuesday said US-led air strikes killed 225 civilians in Syria over the past month.
"I am not going to agree to those numbers," said Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, who heads US Air Forces Central Command.
"We have different numbers that we have garnered through our assessments and our analysis of it."
As of the most recent Centcom count at the end of April, a total of 396 civilians had been killed since the beginning of the bombing campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria nearly three years ago.
The US military insists that its precision targeting abilities are the best in the world and that it takes every measure to avoid hitting civilians, including by aborting missile strikes at the last moment if a civilian unexpectedly wanders into the target zone.
But Airwars Director Chris Wood said a rise in civilian deaths has been particularly noticeable around the IS stronghold of Raqa in Syria, where thousands of jihadists are dug in ahead of an upcoming offensive to recapture the city.
"With three full months of airstrike and civilian casualty data from Donald Trump’s presidency, we are now seeing the emergence of clear trends," Woods said.
Raqa provides "the clearest evidence yet that protections for civilians on the battlefield appear to have been scaled back -– with the inevitable consequence of higher deaths and injuries," he added.
The coalition has sharply increased the number of bombs it is dropping, and Trump has allowed commanders to more quickly approve strikes and fulfil a plan to "annihilate" IS.
Harrigian insisted fatalities have not risen as a result.
"My direct answer to that is no," he said.
"With respect to the administration's guidance to us, the rules of engagement have not changed. So, we are executing those (strikes) in accordance with the training that we've had and the deliberate process that we use to target military-appropriate targets."