US-led strikes on Raqqa causing ‘staggering’ civilian deaths, says UN
Air strikes killed 200 people in one village alone, UN investigators find
People fleeing the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in an area near the village of Balaban, south of Jarablus, Syria, on June 8th. Photograph: Zein al-Rifai/EPA
Intensified coalition air strikes supporting an assault by US-backed forces on Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa in Syria are causing a “staggering loss of civilian life”, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by a US-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa a week ago to take it from the jihadists. The SDF, supported by heavy US-led coalition air strikes, have taken territory to the west, east and north of the city.
“We note in particular that the intensification of air strikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry told the Human Rights Council.
Mr Pinheiro told reporters that coalition air strikes had intensifed around Raqqa, where rival forces are racing to capture ground from Islamic State, also known as Isis or Isil. The Syrian army is also advancing on the desert area west of the city.
“ As the operation is gaining pace very rapidly, civilians are caught up in the city under the oppressive rule of Isil,while facing extreme danger associated with movement due to excessive air strikes,” Mr Pinheiro said.
Karen Abuzayd, a commissioner on the independent panel, said: “We have documented the deaths caused by the coalition air strikes only and we have about 300 deaths, 200 in one place, in al-Mansoura, one village.”
Separately, Human Rights Watch expressed concern in a statement about the use of incendiary white phosphorous weapons by the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saying it endangered civilians when used in populated areas.
In its speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the US delegation made no reference to Raqqa or the air strikes. US diplomat Jason Mack called the Syrian government “the primary perpetrator” of egregious human rights violations in the country.
Mr Pinheiro said that if the international coalition’s offensive is successful, it could liberate Raqqa’s civilian population, including Yazidi women and girls, “whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide”.
“The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where Isil is present,” he added.
Mr Pinheiro also said that 10 agreements between the Syrian government and armed groups to evacuate fighters and civilians from besieged areas, including eastern Aleppo last December, “in some cases amount to war crimes” as civilians had “no choice”.
Syria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Hussam Edin Aaala, denounced violations “committed by the unlawful US-led coalition which targets infrastructure, killing hundreds of civilians including the deaths of 30 civilians in Deir al-Zor. ”