‘Hundreds of civilians’ killed in US-led drive to oust Isis from Raqqa
Amnesty says residents under fire from all sides and urges end to indiscriminate attacks
Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, on August 20th. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A sniper of the Syrian Democratic Forces aims his weapon during the fighting with Islamic State’s fighters in the old city of Raqqa on August 19th. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A woman displaced by the fighting in Raqqa rests with her child at a makeshift refugee camp in Tawayneh, west of Raqqa, on August 18th. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
The rights group also said Russia-backed Syrian government forces had carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians, reported to have included cluster and barrel bombs, in a separate campaign against the militants south of Raqqa city.
“Civilians are ... trapped in the city, under fire from all sides,” Amnesty said in a report.
It said the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Arab and Kurdish militias, must take more care as they battle for the city’s central districts.
“It is imperative that all the parties to the conflict take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians, including ending the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated civilian areas, in compliance with the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.”
Islamic State, also known as Isis, took over Raqqa and its environs in 2014. It uses civilians inside the northern Syrian city as human shields and targets those trying to escape with snipers and mines, Amnesty said.
“[Isis] wouldn’t let us leave. We had no food, no electricity,” a former Raqqa resident told Amnesty, one of 98 displaced individuals it spoke to in northern Syria.
It is difficult to establish how many people have died in the battle for Raqqa.
People interviewed by Reuters displaced by the fighting said air and artillery strikes have killed civilians, and Reuters reporters have seen massive material damage to buildings and infrastructure as they visit recaptured areas.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s war through a network of on-the-ground contacts, said between June 5th and Wednesday it had documented the deaths of 789 civilians, 200 of them children, in Raqqa city as a result of bombardment by the US-led coalition and SDF.
Monitoring group Airwars said it believed between 725 and 993 civilians had likely been killed from coalition actions in Raqqa city since the offensive began in early June.
Hundreds more civilians have reportedly died after being fired on by Islamic State or being caught in their minefields, Airwars director Chris Woods said.
“Coalition forces have listed 16 reports of alleged casualties in or near Raqqa between 6 and 30 June, dismissing three as ‘non-credible’, while 13 others are pending assessment,” Amnesty said. It called on the coalition to establish a more transparent and independent reporting procedure.
The coalition says it is very careful to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, and investigates any allegations. It was unable to provide more recent statistics when contacted by Reuters.
Amnesty criticised the US-led campaign for artillery and air strikes on areas containing civilians and asked for an end to attacks that risked being indiscriminate. “Whether you live or die depends on luck because you don’t know where the next shell will strike, so you don’t know where to run,” former Raqqa resident Mohammed told Amnesty.
Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have also been advancing against Islamic State south of the River Euphrates that forms Raqqa city’s southern edge.
Amnesty said residents had told it that air strikes had hit camps where people had fled the fighting. It said the testimonials it collected suggested cluster bombs had been used in some of the attacks. Russia and Syria say they only target militants.
Neither Russia, Syria nor the United States are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but international humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
Amnesty urged the international community to urgently increase aid for fleeing civilians.
There has been a recent increase in the number of coalition air strikes on Raqqa.
“The fight has now entered into the very hardest parts of the city. And so our partners are needing greater assistance,” Lieut Gen Townsend told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.
He said it was logical to assume there had been “some increase” in civilian casualties as a result of increased strikes, but that he had seen no hard evidence that casualties had increased significantly.
The United Nations says at least 200,000 people have fled Raqqa in recent months, and that up to 20,000 civilians remain trapped inside.
Islamic State is on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq. The US-backed SDF have captured swathes of its territory in northern Syria and Russia-backed Syrian government forces are making rapid advances in the central desert area.