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UN War Crimes Investigators Blast “Staggering” Death Toll From US Bombing of Raqqa

Children killed in a reported May 9 US-led air strike on al-Salhiya village north of the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Syria. (Photo: Amaq News screen grab)

United Nations human rights investigators on Wednesday condemned the “staggering loss of civilian life” caused by US-led air strikes in and around Raqqa, Syria.

Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry, noted in a speech to the world body’s Human Rights Council that “coalition air strikes have intensified around the city,” with many innocent civilians “caught up in the city under the oppressive rule of IS, while facing extreme danger associated with movement due to excessive air strikes.” Pinheiro added the “staggering loss of civilian life” due to US air strikes has forced some 160,000 civilians to flee their homes in and around Raqqa.

As US-backed forces advance in the battle to recapture the de facto Islamic State capital city of Raqqa, Syria, civilians trapped in the crossfire are being killed and wounded at an alarming rate. The UK-based monitor group Airwars, which gathers reports from local and international media and human rights groups, reports at least 140 and as many as 200 Raqqa residents have been killed by either US-led coalition air strikes or bombing and shelling by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies in June alone.

Among the deadliest reported incidents this month:

– June 10 coalition air strikes and/or SDF shelling killed as many as 36 civilians, including at least three children, in the area behind Al Barazi pharmacy on Al Nour street.

– On June 9, 21 civilians — most of them women and children —  died and 19 more were wounded in coalition air and/or artillery strikes on heavily populated residential areas of Raqqa. Local media reported the coalition used white phosphorus munitions. While the use of WP, which is primarily used by US troops as a smokescreen, isn’t prohibited under international law, its use in populated areas is forbidden. When used as an incendiary weapon, WP — which ignites on contact with air and burns at nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (815° C) — can horrifically maim and kill by burning flesh straight through to the bone, often causing a slow, agonizing death.

– On June 5, as many as 21 civilians were killed and 10 others wounded when US-led warplanes attacked a group of people preparing to escape Raqqa by crossing the Euphrates River in boats.

– Between 15 and 20 civilians died in June 3 air strikes near a public swimming pool.

According to the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), US-led coalition forces killed more Syrian civilians in May than any other belligerent fighting in the civil war, for the second straight month. SNHR reported 964 civilian deaths last month, with 29 percent, or 273 people, killed by coalition bombs and artillery. IS is blamed for 268 civilian deaths in May, while Syrian regime forces and allied Iranian Shia militias reportedly killed 241 people. Kurdish fighters killed 54 civilians, with Russian air strikes killing 13 others, according to the group.

Also on Wednesday, the international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern over the use of white phosphorus munitions by US forces in densely-populated urban areas. “No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” HRW said.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump, who vowed to “bomb the shit out of” IS and kill their innocent families — a war crime — has loosened military rules of engagement meant to protect civilians. Civilian casualties have soared in recent months, although Syrian government forces are responsible for the vast majority of the more than 400,000 people killed in the six-year civil war. Airwars says a minimum of 3,962 to 6,187 civilians are likely to have died in coalition actions in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the anti-IS air campaign in 2014.

Speaking last month to graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US is “accelerating the tempo” of the war against IS, in which the US is shifting from a policy of “attrition” to one of “annihilation.”

“Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” Mattis asserted.

In the wider US-led war against Islamist terrorism, estimates of the number of people killed range from the low hundreds of thousands to over 1.3 million. Since the nuclear war waged by the United States to end World War II, US bombs and bullets have killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force on the planet, by far.

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