'Staggering' civilian deaths from US-led air strikes in Raqqa

GENEVA U.N. war crimes investigators said on Wednesday that they had documented 300 civilian deaths from what they called "excessive" coalition air strikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is controlled by Islamic State.

However, according to the Chair of the Independent Commission on Syria, Paolo Pinheiro, progress must not come "at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where [IS] is present".

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which predominately consists of Kurdish fighters but also includes members of the Syrian Arab Coalition, began its final assault on Daesh fighters in Raqqa last week.

Mr Pinheiro told reporters that coalition air strikes had intensifed around Raqqa, where rival forces are racing to capture ground from Islamic State, also known as Isis or Isil.

The U.N. investigators do not have access to Syria.

He said all land routes to the region have been blocked by other parties to Syria's civil war that are hostile to the USA -backed force, forcing the aid agency to rely on airlifts.

Human Rights Watch has meanwhile called on the USA -led coalition to make protection of civilians a priority in the campaign to recapture Raqqa.

Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul were captured by the terror group in 2014 and served as the two strongholds of its self-proclaimed caliphate.

HRW said it had not been able to independently verify any civilian casualties resulting from the use of white phosphorus.

White phosphorus can be used for several purposes on the battlefield - as a smoke screen, for signalling and marking, and as an incendiary weapon. But it can cause serious burns and start fires.

"No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm", warned Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch.

USA defense officials said the weapon fired by the drone did not detonate and no one was hurt.

The U.S. -led coalition includes military personnel from dozens of countries, including Britain, France and Australia.

The U.S. military refused to comment on specific allegations after last week's attack in Raqqa but said it uses white phosphorous rounds "in accordance with the law of armed conflict.in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures".

The U.S.is providing ground and air support to the Kurdish-led SDF in the battle for Raqqa, which has since 2014 been the Islamic State group's main base in Syria. This is the only type of 155mm white phosphorus projectile in USA stocks that can be air-burst, HRW said. U.S. diplomat Jason Mack called the Syrian government "the primary perpetrator" of egregious human rights violations in the country.

  • Leroy Wright