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Kurdish Fighters Rescue Dozens of Civilians in Raqqa, Thousands Trapped

FILE - Civilians, allegedly wounded by Islamic State fighters, wait with relatives to cross into Turkey at the Syrian-Turkish border crossing of Tel Abyad, Syria, June 25, 2015.

Kurdish fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces rescued dozens of civilians trapped in the besieged city of Raqqa as clashes intensified with Islamic State militants.

More than 100 civilians were freed, said Habun Osman, an officer with the SDF, a coalition of Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen fighters.

“IS had been using these civilians as human shields to impede our progress in Raqqa,” he told local reporters.

Among those freed in the past 24 hours was a Yazidi woman and 10-year-old girl who had been sold as a slaves by the militants several times.

SDF commanders say they are trying to open up safe escape routes to reduce civilian casualties in the battle to oust the militants. But United Nations officials warn that civilians are being placed in an impossible position, risking being shot by IS snipers if they try to flee or killed in the fighting if they remain.

The U.N. refugee agency is urging all parties in the battle for Raqqa, IS’s de facto capital in Syria, to allow the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians still trapped in the northern Syrian city safe passage out.

Fears of indiscriminate tactics

SDF commanders say they are not the ones targeting civilians. They accuse IS militants holding the city of endangering families by not allowing them to leave before the full-scale assault on Raqqa began.

Rights groups, which have criticized tactics employed in the assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul, say the same indiscriminate force is being used by coalition warplanes and anti-IS ground forces in Raqqa, too.

On Tuesday, U.S. officials reacted angrily to Amnesty International's report that detailed the loss of civilian life in the battle for Mosul, documenting at least 400 civilian deaths in the west of the city alone between January and mid-May.

Amnesty acknowledged in the report on the battle for Mosul that IS fighters ruthlessly exploited noncombatants and “systematically moved them into zones of conflict, used them as human shields, and prevented them from escaping to safety.”

Civilians are seen inside their home in Raqqa's western neighborhood of Jazra, Syria, June 11, 2017.
Civilians are seen inside their home in Raqqa's western neighborhood of Jazra, Syria, June 11, 2017.

But the rights group argued IS abuse doesn’t excuse battlefield tactics used by coalition and Iraqi forces. Amnesty accused the anti-IS forces of acting unlawfully by failing to ensure that their attacks were discriminating and proportionate, as required by international law.

Amnesty cited a March 17 airstrike in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighborhood targeting a pair of IS snipers in which at least 105 civilians were killed. Iraqi and coalition “reliance upon explosive weapons with wide area effects against targets in heavily populated civilian areas ... left a trail of deaths, injuries and destruction across west Mosul,” Amnesty concluded.

Taking civilian casualties seriously

On Tuesday, in response to Amnesty's criticism of civilian casualties in the fight to defeat IS, State Department press spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “The coalition and its forces do everything that they can to avoid civilian causalities. That is something as Americans and I know the coalition as a whole takes very, very seriously.”

The criticism of the battlefield tactics used and the munitions deployed in Mosul has been echoed in some military circles as well.

“There were numerous images of artillery and rockets being fired by the Iraqi Federal Police into Old Mosul in a haphazard manner,” said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel, who served two stints as an adviser to the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, the last term ending in 2014.

In an interview with the blog Musings on Iraq, Witty said he noticed “mortars were fired without using aiming stakes or re-sighting mortars between volleys of rounds fired.”

He blames that partly on the fact that in west Mosul much of the fighting was done by the Iraqi Federal Police and Rapid Reaction Division as opposed to the better trained CTS, which he says should have been used early on for the tough fighting in Old Mosul with its narrow streets and packed population.

With Raqqa, too, there are similar worries about the skills of the attacking forces, who have not been trained to the CTS level when it comes to urban warfare in populated areas. For many of the SDF fighters, the battle for Raqqa also is an opportunity to avenge the atrocities committed by IS in the past three years.