GENEVA, UN News (28 June 2017) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Wednesday expressed grave concern for the fate of civilians caught up in the anti-ISIL offensive in Al-Raqqa, where up to 100,000 civilians are effectively trapped as the air and ground offensive intensifies. Civilian casualties continue to be reported and escape routes are increasingly sealed off.
According to data collected by the UN Human Rights Office, at least 173 civilians have been killed by air and ground strikes since 1 June – although this is very likely a conservative estimate and the real death toll may be much higher. While some did manage to leave after paying large sums of money to smugglers, including smugglers affiliated with ISIL, reports continue to emerge of ISIL preventing civilians from fleeing. Those who attempt to flee also risk being killed by landmines or getting caught in the crossfire.
“The intense bombardment of Al-Raqqa over the past three weeks has reportedly left civilians terrified and confused about where they can seek refuge as they are caught between ISIL’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “The large number of civilian casualties indicates that much more needs to be done by the parties to ensure protection of the civilian population.”
“Civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories,” Zeid stressed.
The High Commissioner called on all forces battling ISIL in Al-Raqqa, including international forces, to review their operations to ensure full compliance with international law, including taking all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian lives. Where there are reports of civilian casualties, they must be promptly and effectively investigated.
Zeid called on parties to the conflict to put in place measures to allow civilians who wish to flee the fighting to do so in safety.
There are also worrying reports of violations and abuses by the armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in areas under its control, such as Tabqa city, including looting, abductions, arbitrary detentions during screening processes as well as the recruitment of children.