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Amnesty raises war crimes concerns over US-led assault on Raqqa

Rights group says hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands injured by indiscriminate air strikes and shelling during assault on IS stronghold
An SDF fighter stands amid the ruins of buildings near Raqqa's Clock Square in October 2017 (Reuters)

"Indiscriminate" air strikes and shelling by the US-led coalition during its assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa killed hundreds of civilians and may amount to war crimes, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

Many residents trapped in the city were killed in their homes or other places of refuge under a constant barrage of air bombardment and artillery strikes during the campaign against IS's de facto Syrian capital between June and October last year, Amnesty reported.

While IS fighters prevented civilians from leaving the city and used them as human shields, Amnesty said the coalition had not taken precautions to minimise civilian casualties.

It said it was time for the coalition to publicly acknowledge civilian deaths and to publish details of all air strikes.

"There is strong evidence that coalition air and artillery strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians, including in disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks that violated international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes," Amnesty said.

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The report, based on interviews with Raqqa residents and field research in the city, cited the cases of four families: the Badran family which lost 39 members, the Aswad family which lost eight members, the Hashish family which lost 18 members, and the Fayad family which lost 16 members as a result of coalition bombing.

"Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks. Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks," the report said of the four cases studied, adding that such attacks appeared to violate international law.

Raqqa suffered devastating damage during the campaign last year, led on the ground by US-allied Syrian Defence Force (SDF) fighters, to recapture the city from IS militants, which had held it since early 2014.

Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, said that IS's rule of the city had been “rife with war crimes”.

But she said that did not relieve the coalition from its obligations to minimise harm to civilians, citing the “repeated use of explosive weapons in populated areas where they knew civilians were trapped”.

“The coalition’s claims that its precision air campaign allowed it to bomb IS out of Raqqa while causing very few civilian casualties do not stand up to scrutiny. On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we’ve seen in decades of covering the impact of wars,” said Rovera.

“When so many civilians are killed in attack after attack, something is clearly wrong, and to make this tragedy worse, so many months later the incidents have not been investigated. The victims deserve justice.”

US military officials have described the US-led air campaign against IS, which began in 2014, as one of the most accurate in history.

But US Defence Secretary James Mattis last May said the US had “accelerated” the campaign and described civilian casualties as “a fact of life in this sort of situation”.

“We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them,” said Mattis.

Announcing the capture of Raqqa last October, US Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, the coalition's director of operations, praised SDF forces on the ground for their efforts to minimise civilian casualties.

"They fought tenaciously and with courage against an unprincipled enemy, taking great care to move the population trapped by Daesh [IS] away from the battle area and minimise civilian casualties," said Braga.

British and French warplanes also took part in the campaign, but the US carried out about 90 percent of coalition air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq.

The British parliament's defence committee last month announced an inquiry into the Royal Air Force operations over Raqqa and Mosul, IS's former stronghold in Iraq which was also recaptured last year after a brutal air campaign.

But a source close to the inquiry told MEE that civilian deaths would not be a “major focus”. 

In a monthly civilian casualty report published on 31 May, the coalition said it assessed that at least at least 892 civilians had been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes since the start of the campaign in 2014.

At least 321 reports of civilians casualties, including dozens of incidents in or near Raqqa during the months of the assault on the city, are still being assessed.

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