Isis is using thousands as human shields, says UN

Militant group carrying out mass executions as Kurdish and Iraqi forces close in on Mosul

The Iraqi army continues to close in on Mosul as they move in on two neighbouring villages located 20km north of the Isis stronghold. Video: Reuters


Islamic State fighters have killed scores of people and are using tens of thousands more as human shields as government and Kurdish forces battle to reclaim Mosul, UN human rights investigators reported on Friday.

After killing a group of 25 former servicemen on Tuesday, the militants shot to death at least 190 former members of the Iraqi security forces at a military base in Mosul on Wednesday, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, told reporters in Geneva.

Islamic State, also known as Isis, members had rounded up the former servicemen and their families a day earlier. After transporting them to al-Ghazlani base, they separated the men from the women and children and shot them dead, Ms Shamdasani said.

The militants also killed 42 civilians on Friday at a military base outside the city by shooting them in the head, she said, after they refused to join the Islamic State. The Islamic State has forcibly relocated close to 7,900 families into the city from surrounding villages since the start of the operation to retake Mosul began on October 17th, Ms Shamdasani said. “Many of those who refused to comply were shot on the spot,“ she said.

The United Nations had corroborated the reports of the atrocities but cautioned that they were not comprehensive, she said, adding, “it doesn’t mean there aren’t more”.

“The militants are surrounding themselves with tens of thousands of women, men and children as part of a “depraved cowardly strategy” of using them as human shields to discourage military action against the city, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief said in a statement.

Using the UN average of six people per family, the rights office said, about 48,000 men, women and children have been forcibly relocated into Mosul, and it is likely that the scale of the humanitarian crisis will intensify as the fighting moves closer to the heart of the city.

That has raised the possibility that hundreds of thousands of civilians will attempt to flee the city as clashes grow closer, and relief agencies are working to stockpile supplies and establish camps.

Mr Al-Hussein also expressed concern at reports that “some individuals” had carried out revenge killings of people believed to be members of the Islamic State in areas south of Mosul and had vowed “eye-for-eye” retaliation, Ms Shamdasani said, but she did not elaborate.

As the offensive to reclaim the city moves on, there are growing concerns about the fate of civilians who have been living under Islamic State. They face a grim choice between retreating into Mosul to serve as human shields, waiting out fierce fighting in their homes, or fleeing to areas where they fear being targeted as collaborators or supporters of Isis.

The battle pits up to 6,000 Islamic State fighters dug in around Mosul against 30,000 troops from a broad coalition including the Kurdish peshmerga, the Iraqi army and special forces, Shia militias allied with Iran, US warplanes and military advisers, and Turkish forces positioned to the north of the city.

Death penalty

On Friday, Shia militias said they would soon attack to the west of Mosul, currently the only open route out of a city now surrounded on three sides, and reportedly used by Islamic State to transport some commanders and their families to Syria.

People trapped along the path of Islamic State’s retreat say the group is branding anyone who refuses to head to Mosul with them an “apostate”, a crime carrying the death penalty under Isis rule, making fleeing to relative safety of government-controlled areas a risky gamble.

“Daesh detains families or sometimes just young people as they withdraw from an area. My brother was in the village of al-Hood and is one of those that they have taken. We do not know what has become of him,” said Jassim (36), a farmer from Qayyarah , using the Arabic acronym for the group.

“When the army attacks any village, civilians are caught in crossfire. We have to decide whether to go to the army side or stay where Daesh is. Daesh considers anyone who leaves the land of caliphate as ‘apostate’ so they force people to go with them as they withdraw towards Mosul.”

So far the UN has details of about 8,000 families who have been shifted from villages on the eastern and southern edge of Islamic State control towards the suburbs of Mosul and the city itself.

But those figures likely represent a minimum number of victims, Ms Shamdasani said. “These reports ... do not mean there are not more civilians who have been killed, more families displaced.”

The US has been bombing vehicles used to move civilians towards Mosul, in a bid to disrupt the forced march into the city, a senior US general told Associated Press. The buses and trucks have been struck when empty, and far from civilians, he said.

Inside the city, residents said displaced people were arriving in their hundreds and moving into empty public buildings and offices, living in appalling conditions as chillier autumn weather sets in.

“Congestion is increasing in the city, since the military operation began, hundreds of families from villages around Mosul began to come to the city and they are housed in schools and empty government buildings,” said Issa, a teacher in his 30s, who lives in the west of the city.

He did not know if they had chosen to leave their villages or had been forced out by Islamic State, but said their situation in Mosul was dire, with most struggling to feed themselves or stay warm.

“They live under difficult conditions and we are helping them as much as we can by giving them food, water, blankets and other needs. They are scared.” Former members of the security forces among the new arrivals had been taken away by Islamic State, he added, and their current location was unknown.

Summary executions

There have also been reports of revenge attacks on men and boys believed to have fought for Islamic State or supported it, by the forces closing in towards Mosul. Ms Shamdasani said it was vital that Islamic State killings did not draw security forces into a spiral of violence.

“In the face of these flagrant violations of international humanitarian law by Isil, it is even more crucial that government forces and their allies ensure scrupulous respect for these laws,” she said.

In some areas residents thought to have supported Islamic State are being blocked from returning home, with fighters citing security concerns and boasting of summary executions .

“Captured [Islamic State] fighters and those perceived to have supported them must be held in accordance with international law,” Ms Shamdasani said.

Adding to concerns about those trapped near the frontlines, Amnesty International warned it had credible reports that white phosphorus had been used around Mosul. The chemical, which burns at an extremely high temperature on exposure to air and can sear through flesh and bone, is allowed in some battlefield situations but is illegal in areas with a civilian population.

“We are urging Iraqi and coalition forces never to use white phosphorus in the vicinity of civilians,” Amnesty said. “Even if civilians are not present at the time of its use, due to the residual risks they should not use airburst white phosphorus munitions unless it is absolutely necessary to achieve military objectives which cannot be accomplished through safer means.”