THE British government is refusing to accept evidence of civilian fatalities in UK air strikes from human rights groups monitoring the results of bombing raids on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

The Ministry of Defence told the Sunday Herald that it will not investigate reports of deaths on the ground in Syria and Iraq - from anyone but UK military personnel, and 'local forces' deemed friendly.

The UK Government is being urged to launch an immediate investigation after independent monitoring group Airwars reported between 72 and 81 civilian deaths in Iraq could be linked to British air strikes.

In the wake of the report, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) insisted there had been “no reports” from Iraq or Syria of civilian casualties as a result of the UK air campaign.

The MoD insisted it would not consider reports from independent monitoring groups, such as Airwars, which collates information from sources including media reports and civilians on the ground in affected areas.

The MoD claims it relies only on evidence from its own internal surveillance - through aerial assessments or information from evaluations carried out by what it calls 'local forces'. A spokeswoman refused to comment further on what it meant by 'local forces'.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars, which describes itself as a not-for-profit transparency project, said he was “shocked” by the admission by the MoD that it ruled out reports by human rights monitoring organisations.

He said Airwars had uncovered huge discrepancies in incidents being reported when it worked with US Central Command (Centcom) last year on compiling a database of civilian casualties of American bombing missions.

“One of the things that troubled us was that we were aware of three times more alleged civilian casualty incidents than Centcom was,” he said. “Their own internal mechanisms were simply missing two out of three alleged cases on the ground and we ended up sharing our data-set with them, simply so they could begin triggering investigative processes for those events they were unaware of."

Woods, a specialist in conflict and national security issues who was an investigator with BBC Panorama and Newsnight, said: “For the UK to say it only draws on internal surveillance carried out by itself and by reporting by ground forces - presumably Iraq army and proxy forces in Iraq and Syria - it’s too closed a circle.

“It does not reflect the reality on the ground in either Iraq or Syria, which is that hundreds of civilians have been killed by the coalition and those deaths are being credibly reported - but not by the coalition members themselves.”

He added one issue with monitoring the UK’s activities is that half of all its airstrikes are carried out by reaper drones – and officials will not release any information about where those strikes are taking place which can be checked against reports of casualties.

According to statistics compiled by Airwars, since August 2014 US-led coalition forces, including France, Canada, UK and Australia have carried out around 6,317 airstrikes in Iraq intended at targeting Islamic State. Around 450 were carried out by the UK.

The US began operations in Syria in September 2014 and has been joined by allies including Turkey, Australia, Canada and France. The UK joined in December last year. Around 3,204 US-led coalition air strikes have been carried out in Syria, with around a dozen carried out so far by the UK.

Airwars has estimated that up to 2,332 civilian deaths have resulted from these attacks in both Iraq and Syria.

But while more than 35,000 bombs have been dropped on both Iraq and Syria, the coalition has admitted to causing just six civilian deaths in two incidents involving just the US military. These deaths included two children in Syria in 2014, and four civilians who were “likely” killed in Iraq last year.

Woods said the US had depended heavily on “non-military” sources while investigating these incidents, and it was unacceptable for the UK to rule out credible reports from international news agencies, human rights and monitoring agencies, or civilians on the ground taking “enormous risks” to get information out.

Wood said that if British MPs "had known when the Prime Minister told MPs there had been no reports of civilians killed by the UK in Iraq and Syria, that what he was actually saying is 'we haven’t reported to ourselves we have killed civilians in Iraq or Syria', they would have perhaps treated the government’s views with far more scepticism”.

He added: “We are certain that hundreds of civilians have died as a result of coalition strikes in the last 16 months and we firmly believe the coalition itself is woefully under-reporting civilian fatalities.

“Nothing in this revelation from the MoD - that it is only relying on internal military reports - gives us any confidence in British reporting mechanisms when it comes to properly following up allegations of civilians potentially being killed by British aircraft.”

Brendan O’Hara, MP for Argyll and Bute and the SNP’s defence spokesman at Westminster, raised concerns about the MoD’s dismissal of any evidence of civilian deaths apart from confirmation by UK military personnel or 'local forces'.

“Like any organisation of that size, they will be self-policing and decide what is a success and what is not a success – what is a civilian casualty and what is not a civilian casualty," he said.

“I don’t think you can just merrily dismiss other respected organisations when they say 'you are wrong, there have been civilian casualties and this is a consequence of your actions'.”

He added: “It is the old cliché - in war truth is the first casualty. When a respected organisation says there are civilian casualties and the government says there are not, who do you believe? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but at the very least the claims should be investigated.

“This idea the government is trying to sell the UK airstrikes in Syria as 'civilian casualty free' - we didn’t accept it at the time and we certainly don’t accept it now.”

Stephen Gethins, SNP MP for north-east Fife and a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee, said: “I would hope the UK government would do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.

“I would also expect it to work as hard as possible to, like other countries, consider as much evidence as it can on the impact of any bombing campaign. The people of Syria have suffered more than anybody else from this dreadful conflict and the last thing that country needs is more bombs.

“I hope the UK government will reconsider its attitude to monitoring civilian deaths.”

Amnesty International is currently researching and documenting concerns relating to the impact of air-strikes on civilians by the US-led coalition.

Kristyan Benedict, crisis response manager, at Amnesty International UK, said the human rights organisation would like to see the UK release information such as the co-ordinates of actual strikes which could be independently assessed by monitoring organisations to back up claims that there have been no civilian casualties.

“They haven’t done that yet and the longer the US or the UK or any part of the coalition don’t release information such as video footage or coordinates of intended and actual strikes, more questions are going to be raised,” he said.

“One thing about the conflict situation in Syria now compared to Iraq or even Afghanistan is there is a lot more monitoring on the ground.

“It is more difficult for international bodies like the UN and Amnesty to have wide access, but in Syria from 2011 many independent groups and activists set themselves up to monitor violations primarily by the Syrian government.

“It is much more difficult for states like the US and the UK to hide any potential civilian casualties, there are now a lot more eyes and ears on the ground.”

A spokeswoman for the MoD said: “There have been no reports from Iraq or Syria of civilian casualties as a result of the UK air campaign - our overriding concern is to protect civilians from the terrorists we are targeting and we take every possible measure to avoid causing harm to innocent people.”