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Battle to regain Raqqa must not be about defeating ISIL at all costs – Zeid

GENEVA (31 August 2017) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday stressed that the battle to regain Al-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor from ISIL must not be waged at the expense of the lives of civilians trapped and besieged in these areas.

“Surely the purpose of defeating ISIL should be to protect and assist civilians who have been suffering under their murderous regime,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the airstrikes 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.”

Between 1 and 29 August, the Coalition reports that it conducted 1,094 airstrikes on and near Raqqa city– up from 645 in July. In July, throughout the whole of Syria, a total of 885 airstrikes were conducted by the Coalition.

The Russian air force, which operates separately from the Coalition, reported publicly that it had carried out 990 combat flights in Syria from 1 to 21 August and that 2,518 aviation strikes had been conducted.

Airstrikes and ground-based strikes on Raqqa have resulted in a large number of civilians casualties. While it is difficult to get a full picture, the UN Human Rights Office has managed to verify the following incidents since 1 August 2017 in each of which more than 20 civilians were reportedly killed – a total of 151 civilian deaths in six incidents alone:

•     On 21 August afternoon, airstrikes hit a residential area in ISIL-held Al-Skhani neighbourhood and allegedly killed 32 civilians, including at least 11 women and six children. The same afternoon, airstrikes hit residential areas in Al-Badu neighbourhood, reportedly killing at least 21 civilians, including six women and four children.
•     On 20 August afternoon, airstrikes hit a three-storey residential building in Al-Badu neighbourhood, allegedly killing at least 27 civilians, seven of them children.
•     On 17 August evening, airstrikes hit residential areas in Madrasat Mu’awiya neighbourhood and reportedly killed at least 22 civilians, including six women and at least nine children.
•     On 8 August morning, airstrikes hit a residential area in ISIL-controlled Al-Thaqna neighbourhood and allegedly killed at least 22 civilians, nine of them women and 11 children. Those killed reportedly were two entire families who had earlier been displaced from Palmyra in Homs Governorate.
•     On 1 August morning, airstrikes hit residential areas in Albo Saraya neighbourhood, reportedly killing at least 27 civilians, including 12 children and eight women.

“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,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “Meanwhile ISIL fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers. We have reports of smugglers also being publicly executed by ISIL.”

“So as airstrikes bombard Al-Raqqa, some 20,000 civilians are either trapped, or risk their lives to flee and end up confined in makeshift camps in areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces under horrendous conditions until prolonged security procedures are completed, with no oversight on how they are treated and screened,” Zeid said.

The High Commissioner called on all those with involvement or influence in the conflict to facilitate the rapid, safe departure of civilians wishing to leave Al-Raqqa city, and to ensure the protection of those who remain.

The UN Human Rights Office has also received information about ISIL forcibly conscripting civilians in Deir-ez-Zor, including children.

“Once Al-Raqqa is retaken from ISIL, the next big battle will be Deir-ez-Zor. I appeal to all the parties involved in the conflict in Syria to fully respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population and civilian objects. Individuals who are suspected for having committed serious violations of international law should be promptly investigated and if necessary prosecuted in accordance with international standards,” he said.


For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 97 67 / rcolville@ohchr.org), Ravina Shamdasani (mailto:rshamdasani@ohchr.org+41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org ) or or LizThrossell (+41 22 917 94 66 / ethrossell@ohchr.org 

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