The United Nations Human Rights Office said Thursday it has “credible reports” indicating Islamic State fighters in Iraq killed at least 231 civilians who were trying to flee western Mosul.
The reported killings happened between May 26 and June 3, all in the al-Shifa neighborhood, and involved people trying to get from Islamic State-held areas to locations held by Iraqi troops.
The United Nations also said it is still investigating reports of other civilian casualties from an airstrike in the Zanjilly section of western Mosul that reportedly killed between 50 and 80 people.
Civilians a major concern
The fight for western Mosul has been going on since February, following the success of Iraqi troops backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition in taking the eastern side of the city. Fully securing Mosul would mark a major victory in the campaign to oust the militant group that swept through large areas of Iraq, including Mosul, in 2014.
The fate of civilians still living in Iraq’s second-largest city has been a major concern, with rights groups, aid organizations and the United Nations warning of supply shortages and the danger of having the battle play out in tight streets.
A group of human rights and humanitarian groups called Thursday for the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition to avoid the use of weapons that could indiscriminately target civilians during the final push to recapture western Mosul.
“Thousands of families are trapped by ISIS in west Mosul with its fighters preventing civilians from fleeing to safety,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East Director Lama Fakih said in a statement. “Iraqi and coalition forces should recognize that in the crowded Old City, using explosive weapons with wide area effects puts civilians at excessive risk.”
HRW, Amnesty International, Airwars, Center for Civilians in Conflict, Human Rights First, the International Network on Explosive Weapons, and War Child all signed on to Thursday’s statement.
They highlighted the use of mortars, unguided artillery rockets and airstrikes with bombs larger than 225 kilograms, saying the weapons lack the accuracy or limited effects that allow them to be used in heavily populated areas without putting civilians at risks that outweigh the military objectives that can be achieved.
Risk from IS tactics
The statement also notes the additional risk to civilians posed by Islamic State tactics.
“The difficulty of detecting civilians in the packed city, even with advanced targeting systems and continuous observation, make it difficult to determine accurately the number of civilians occupying a target area prior to approving strikes. The dangers are increased by ISIS’ use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime,” the groups said.
The Public Affairs Office of the U.S. military told VOA in a statement: "The Coalition adheres to strict targeting processes and procedures aimed to minimize risks to non-combatants. These procedures include selecting platforms and munitions for the airstrike that are most appropriate for the specific target and mission. The Coalition always seeks to use weapons that are proportional to the target to minimize collateral damage and risk to civilians. The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets with precision munitions, unlike the indiscriminate nature of ISIS tactics which result in an enormous number of avoidable civilian deaths.
"The Coalition respects human life, which is why we are assisting our Iraqi partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality. Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the Coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS's inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods."
The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since August 2014 and in Syria since September of that year. Its latest monthly civilian casualty report said that based on the information it has, the coalition assesses that its strikes have unintentionally killed 484 civilians since the campaign began.
Rights groups have put the figure much higher. Airwars estimates at least 3,817 civilians have been killed in coalition strikes.
The coalition has said it takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and that its forces “take all feasible precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.”