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3 Jul, 2017 17:26

US Raqqa offensive killing more civilians than claimed – airstrike monitor

US Raqqa offensive killing more civilians than claimed – airstrike monitor

UN warnings of the “staggering” number of civilian casualties in Raqqa, Syria that were denied by coalition commanders are no exaggeration, a monitoring group insists.

Airwars, a UK-based group that monitors airstrikes and civilian casualties in Iraq, Libya and Syria, reports it has tracked 119 alleged civilian casualty events at Raqqa, claiming up to 770 deaths, between June 6-29.

The coalition began its assault on the so-called capital of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) caliphate, Raqqa, on June 6. It has been accused of having no plan in place for civilian evacuations, and Airwars reports a number of civilians have been killed attempting to flee in boats.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights warned at least 173 civilians have been killed by air and ground strikes in Raqqa since June 1, saying this is “likely a conservative estimate and the real death toll may be much higher.” 

The coalition’s Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR) - denies the coalition isn’t being careful enough, with coalition commander General Stephen Townsend saying, “show me some evidence of civilian casualties.”

In June, the UN’s chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, warned the UN Human Rights Council that the fight in Raqqa shouldn’t be “at the expense of civilians,” saying it is “gravely concerned with the mounting number of civilians who perish during airstrikes.”

Pinheiro said the airstrikes had resulted in a “staggering loss of life.”

Townsend called the UN’s concerns “hyperbolic,” saying the coalition is being, “careful as we need to be and as we can be.”

“I would challenge anyone to find a more precise and careful campaign in the history of warfare on this planet,” he told the BBC last week.

“The UN's Commission of Inquiry is one of a number of international agencies, NGOs and monitors which have expressed significant concern in recent weeks at high numbers of reported civilian fatalities around Raqqa from Coalition actions,” Airwars’ Chris Woods told RT.

“Rather than attacking the messengers, the US and allies should urgently examine their tactics at Raqqa, improving where necessary protections for civilians on the ground.”

“Our present estimate is that around 370-450 civilians have been killed by Coalition airstrikes and artillery at Raqqa in just three weeks,” Airwars said. The group is still working through a significant number of cases to garner a final number of civilian casualties for the month.

“All local monitors, plus UN agencies, reporting high civilian casualties at Raqqa for months. Gen Townsend comments smack of complacency,” Airwars said in tweet, pointing to the additional 132 civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria that the coalition itself reported in June. 

READ MORE: Civilian death toll rises to 484 from US-led coalition strikes in Iraq & Syria

According to Airwars and its sources, the coalition has been targeting boats which are carrying civilians fleeing the battle. The coalition refers to such strikes as hitting “ISIS boats.”

“Four June cases where (mostly named) civilians reportedly bombed as they fled Raqqa by boat. Cars also being bombed as civilians flee,” Airwars said in a Tweet.

The coalition says it has nearly sealed off Raqqa, as the Syrian Democratic forces fight on the ground. Two bridges on the northern bank of the Euphates River have been destroyed by the coalition, “and we shoot every boat we find,” Townsend told the New York Times.

“If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft,” he added.

Townsend’s comments don’t bode well for civilians desperate to flee the battleground. Between 50,000-100,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the city. 

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS), a group of journalists with alleged ties to Turkish authorities, says people have been trying to flee the bombardment with help from local smugglers, but that IS have already planted hundreds of landmines and banned people from leaving. It has reported 358 civilian casualties in Raqqa in June, with 177 coming from ‘warplane attacks’. 

Between June 21-26 specifically, 88 civilians have died or are missing after coalition shelling or bombing. At least 18 of these were fleeing via car or boat, according to RIBSS, as cited by the Daily Beast.

Human rights groups have also criticized the coalition for its use of white phosphorus near civilians, which is against international law.