As the fight for Raqqa intensifies, “thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides,” said Amnesty researcher Donatella Rovera who led a week-long investigation in late July into the Raqqa offensive.
Also on Thursday, a top UN aid official for Syria said some 20,000 civilians are held as “human shields” by the militants in five neighborhoods of the city while facing constant air raids and shelling by the US-led coalition and allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Jan Egeland urged the US-led coalition to consider a humanitarian pause in the city, saying it is “time to try anything” to allow civilians to escape the clutches of Daesh in Raqqa.
“This is the time to try anything to allow the safe escape. At the moment few people leave, because they are afraid for their lives,” he said.
“There is heavy shelling from the surrounding and encircling (US, allied Syrian local) forces, and there (are) constant air raids from the coalition. So the civilian casualties are large,” Egeland added. “There seem to be no escape for these civilians.”
Coalition spokesman Col. Joe Scrocca said the coalition does “everything within our powers to limit harm” to civilians.
Scrocca said in comments e-mailed to The Associated Press that Daesh had years to prepare Raqqa’s defense, making a house-to-house, street-by-street battle, as well as civilian casualties, inevitable.
He also dismissed Amnesty’s report on civilian deaths, saying it is based on “scant information” and plays into the hands of the militants.
“The unfortunate death of civilians is a fact of war that weighs heavy on our hearts, however, if (Daesh) is not defeated the cost will be even higher, and it will be paid not just in Iraq and Syria, but in our homelands across the globe,” Scrocca said.
Amnesty’s team documented 95 civilian deaths, including 41 children and 25 women, in June and July because of the US-led campaign. Amnesty said it interviewed dozens of civilians, humanitarian and medical personnel and others.
Amnesty said the US has been providing artillery support, using Howitzers which fire 155 mm shells and GPS-directed 227 mm mortars, for the Kurdish-led Syrian forces it backs on the ground. The local forces are armed with 120 mm mortars.
“Coalition forces’ reliance to a large extent on weapons which have a wide impact radius and which cannot be accurately pinpointed at specific targets to neutralize IS targets in civilian neighborhoods has exacted a significant toll on civilians,” the report said. Resident testimonies indicate the missiles have targeted areas of hundreds of square meters, rather than specific targets “which, if true, would constitute not only disproportionate but also indiscriminate attacks.”
The report said civilians also come under fire from the Russia-backed Syrian government forces fighting Daesh militants to the south of Raqqa. At least 30 civilians were killed in that campaign, it said. At the same time, Daesh militants use civilians as human shields and hide among them from advancing forces, the group said.
The report also said that the coalition’s use of airstrikes, while more accurate than artillery fire, has often hit civilians at home or while they attempted to flee.
Amnesty criticized the coalition for “poor reporting and inadequate investigation” of civilian casualties, saying they lack basic information on weapons deployed or visits to sites of attacks.
In its three-year campaign in Syria and Iraq, the coalition says it can verify 624 unintentional civilian deaths.