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Airstrikes, ISIL causing civilian casualties in Syria — Zeid

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GENEVA (26 May 2017) – Civilians in Syria are increasingly paying the price as counter-ISIL airstrikes escalate while ISIL cracks down on those in and around areas remaining under its control, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Friday.

The UN Human Rights chief urged "all States’ air forces operating in the country to take much greater care to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians. All parties to the conflict must uphold their obligation to take every feasible measure to spare the civilian population from the effects of the armed conflict."

“The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL, are also falling victim to the escalating airstrikes, particularly in the northeastern governorates of Al-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor,” Zeid said, noting that his Office is receiving numerous credible and disturbing reports of such incidents.

“Unfortunately, scant attention is being paid by the outside world to the appalling predicament of the civilians trapped in these areas,” he added, citing a number of the most recent incidents.

On 14 May, 23 farm workers – 17 of them women – were reportedly killed when airstrikes hit Al-Akershi village in a rural area of eastern Al-Raqqa Governorate. Airstrikes on two residential areas of the ISIL-controlled city of Albo Kamal in eastern Deir-ez-Zor Governorate the following day (15 May), reportedly killed at least 59 civilians (including 16 children and 12 women) and injured another 70. The day after that, ISIL fighters are said to have cut the throats of eight men at the sites of the airstrikes, after accusing them of providing coordinates for the strikes.

Following its defeat in several areas inside Syria and Iraq, ISIL fighters have been carrying out assaults in and around areas still under their control. On 18 May, for example, an ISIL attack on the Government-controlled village of Aqareb in rural eastern Hama Governorate, allegedly resulted in the deaths of 36 civilians including women and children — many killed by crossfire and snipers, but in some cases as a result of having their throats cut.

Places such as the border city of Albo Kamal – where retreating ISIL fighters and their families are mixed in with some 100,000 people, including displaced Syrians and Iraqis – are of particular concern, the UN Human Rights Chief said.

“Because of the ISIL presence, we fear civilians are in an increasingly dangerous situation as the airstrikes and ground conflict intensify, possibly resulting in many more casualties, as well as retaliatory assaults by ISIL against densely-populated civilian areas,” he said.

Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must abide by the principles of distinction, proportionality and ‘precautions in attack’ in order to minimise civilian casualties, and undertake investigations when civilian casualties occur. Those found to be responsible for violations of the law must be held to account.

“The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks,” Zeid said. “Just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

“We are also extremely concerned by reports of ISIL preventing civilians from leaving areas under their control, except to other ISIL-controlled areas,” Zeid said. “Preventing civilians from leaving ISIL-held areas runs contrary to international human rights law, and – if it puts them at increased risk from the conflict – to international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that ISIL continues constantly to kill and endanger civilians, committing war crimes without any compunction whatsoever.”

“However, it is also far from clear that the fundamental principles of international law are being properly adhered to by all the various air forces engaged in the fight against ISIL,” Zeid warned.

ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 97 67 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 91 69 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org)

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