Amnesty: US-led coalition’s Raqqa offensive killed hundreds

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Hundreds of civilians were killed during the United States-led coalition’s military offensive to remove the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISILalso known as ISIS) group from its self-styled capital in Syria last year, a human rights organisation has said.

In a new report published by Amnesty International on Tuesday, 112 civilians belonging to four families in Raqqa were interviewed who recalled the horrors they witnessed and family members killed during the four-month-long joint US-coalition and Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive from June 6 until October 12, 2017.

“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,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International. 

“The victims deserve justice,” she added.

The 68-page report, titled War of annihilation: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, includes field investigations from Amnesty International researchers who visited 42 coalition air attack sites across the city.

While British and French Coalition forces carried out tens of thousands of air strikes, the US was responsible for more than 90 percent of the air strikes, and admitted to firing 30,000 artillery rounds, the report said.

“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,” Rovera said.

“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.”

The families interviewed lost 90 relatives and neighbours between them. One family lost 39 family members from the unrelenting aerial bombardment.

Raqqa destroyed

After ISIL took over Raqqa in January 2014, much of its rule over the city’s residents was characterised by repression, including public lashings, executions, and arrest of dissidents and activists.

Yet the US-led offensive on the city, coined by US Defence Secretary James Mattis as a “War of annihilation”, destroyed much of Raqqa’s infrastructure and buildings, in addition to killing hundreds of civilians “in the process of ‘liberating’ them from … IS”.

“IS’ brutal four-year rule in Raqqa was rife with war crimes,” Rovera said.

“But the violations of IS, including the use of civilians as human shields, do not relieve the Coalition of their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians.”

‘Nothing was left standing’

Rasha Badran and her husband Abdulwahab lost their baby daughter Tulip and 38 members of their family, after an airstrike targeted the two houses they were taking shelter in.

The Badran family had moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, trying to flee the coalition’s air attacks, and had lost four family members on the move when a coalition airstrike targeted the car they were in.

Those who had survived settled in two houses in Harat al-Sakhani, in Raqqa’s Old City. On August 20, at 7pm, the houses were bombed.

“Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived,” Rasha told Amnesty International. “I could neither move nor speak. Then my husband and his brother found me.

“It was dark and we could not see anything. We called out but nobody else answered; nobody moved.”

Thirty-three members of the Badran family were killed in the attack.

Rasha and the three men hid in the rubble until the following morning, because the warplanes were still circling above them.

“In the morning we found Tulip’s body,” Rasha said. “Our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

“Both houses were pulverised; nothing was left standing, there was only rubble.”

“I don’t understand why they bombed us,” she continued. “Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Catastrophic situation’

Amnesty International called for coalition members to impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of violations and civilian casualties.

Furthermore, coalition members must also publicly acknowledge the scale and magnitude of civilian lives killed and destruction of civilian property in Raqqa, the rights group said.

“Raqqa’s civilians are returning home to ruins, pulling loved ones out of rubble, and facing death or injury from mines, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and unexploded ordnance,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The Coalition’s refusal to acknowledge its role in creating this catastrophic situation adds insult to injury.”

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