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  • An explosion results from U.S.-led airstrikes on Raqqa.

    An explosion results from U.S.-led airstrikes on Raqqa. | Photo: AFP

Published 14 June 2017

The civilians of Raqqa have been held virtually captive amid the battle pitting U.S.-led forces against the Islamic State group.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria is facing accusations of reckless disregard for civilian communities in the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqqa from human rights and war crimes monitors who say that the assault is causing a “staggering loss of civilian life” in addition to the mass displacement of 160,000 who have been forced to flee their homes.

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The civilians of Raqqa have been held virtually captive amid the battle, which began last week and has pitted U.S.-supported Kurdish militias against the Islamist militants. United Nations war crimes investigator Paulo Pinheiro said Wednesday that the civilians “are in the unenviable role of being the target of most warring parties," facing "disastrous consequences" and a “wretched experience” following their displacement from the city.

“Parents have to make an impossible decision,” Doctors Without Borders emergency coordinator Puk Leenders said in a statement last week. “Either they stay in Raqqa, subjecting their children to increased violence and airstrikes, or they take them over the frontline, knowing they will need to cross minefields and may be caught in crossfire.”

Separately, U.S.-founded nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about the use of white phosphorous by U.S.-led forces in Syria and Iraq. The incendiary weapon, which can melt human flesh from the bones of victims, has been prohibited by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits the use of incendiary weapons in air attacks on populated civilian areas. The U.S., which used the substance widely during combat in Fallujah, Iraq, is not a signatory to the accord.

"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," Human Rights Watch arms director Steve Goose said in a statement released Wednesday. “U.S.-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria.”

Israeli military forces infamously used white phosphorous in heavily-populated areas of the Palestinian Gaza Strip during offensives in 2008-2009, for which it faced heavy condemnation by international observers.

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During the first three months of the Trump presidency, civilian casualties resulting from U.S. airstrikes have skyrocketed as almost 60 percent of officially acknowledged deaths in the three-year U.S. military intervention occurred within that period alone, according to U.S. Central Command.

According to witnesses speaking to The New York Times, an internet cafe in Raqqa was recently struck by missiles, killing approximately 20 civilians as they gathered to reach relatives amid Islamic State group threats to close off internet access.

"Just because ISIS holds an area does not mean less care can be taken," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said this month. "Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIS or by any other party."  

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