Civilians are paying an “unacceptable” price in the siege of the city of Raqqa, a top UN human rights official has said, adding that the US-led coalition may not be respecting the principles of international humanitarian law in its “intense” airstrikes.
The multi-ethnic Syrian militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and dominated by Kurdish YPG units, supported by the US-led coalition, launched the offensive in Raqqa province in November last year.
In June, the fighting progressed towards Raqqa city, a de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist caliphate.
Up to 25,000 civilians are still trapped in the besieged city, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, told the UN Security Council Wednesday.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, said on Thursday that his office had managed to verify reports of 151 civilian deaths from six aerial or ground operations over the course of August alone.
“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times – are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid said in a statement on Thursday.
“I am extremely concerned that in its conduct of hostilities, the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality,” Zeid added.
“Meanwhile ISIL fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers.”
Between August 1 and 29, the coalition reports that it conducted 1,094 airstrikes on and near Raqqa city – up from 645 last month. In July, throughout the whole of Syria, a total of 885 airstrikes were conducted by the coalition.
Earlier, the UN estimated that 27 civilians in Raqqa were being killed in the fighting each day.
The US-led coalition has been accused of indiscriminate bombing, including the use of white phosphorus over populated areas, one instance of which allegedly killed 17 people.
Some of the civilians who made it out of Raqqa alive spoke to RT at the Ain Issa refugee camp north of the city.
“The aircraft shelled a lot. This happened in Mishleb, the downtown area, and around us. ISIS was slaughtering people and throwing them next to our houses,” one woman told RT’s Ruptly video agency.
“The shelling is targeting the civilians, it is the aircraft, the coalition. It shells the civilians. Four-story houses of people were all bombed over in our neighborhood. For sure many have died. One of them is my cousin, he died in Raqqa by an airplane,” another refugee said.
An estimated 75,000 people have fled the city since hostilities began, according to the UN.
The humanitarian situation in the city, meanwhile, remains dire, as the remaining people trapped there have virtually no access to basic services, including clean water and food. Last week, Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, called for a humanitarian pause to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape from Raqqa.
“On Raqqa, our urging today from the UN side to the members of the Humanitarian Task Force, including the members of the Coalition that is helping retake Raqqa, is that they need to do whatever is possible to make it possible for people to escape Raqqa,” he told reporters.
“You know, boats on the Euphrates must not be attacked, people that come out cannot risk air raids when they come and where they come.”
However, IS militants refuse to negotiate to allow humanitarian corridors or escape routes for the civilian population, according to UN officials.