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Amnesty International report: US-led Coalition admits killing civilians

The US-led Coalition has responded to the findings of an Amnesty International report of 5 June which documented the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Raqqa resulting from US, UK and French airstrikes which took place between June and October of 2017. Amnesty researchers visited 42 Coalition airstrike sites across Raqqa and interviewed 112 civilian residents who survived the onslaught while losing family and friends in the attacks.

The report, War of annihilation: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, describes how the residents lost 90 relatives and neighbours – almost all killed by Coalition airstrikes. The 70-page report iterates that, “the cases are part of a wider pattern and provide a strong prima facie case that many lethal Coalition air and artillery strikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks carried out in violation of international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes”.

On 26 July, the US-led Coalition acknowledged that airstrikes during this time had indeed killed 77 civilians, including 24 children and 25 women. These were cases recorded by Amnesty’s independent field assessments in the beleaguered city of Raqqa, cases which the Coalition had previously dismissed on the grounds of being “non-credible”. Responding to the admission, Amnesty International has called on the Coalition to launch independent investigations to uncover the scale of civilian deaths.

Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, commented that: “The US-led Coalition’s admission of responsibility is not surprising given the level of our evidence and marks a welcome U-turn in its stance on the many civilians killed by its
Raqqa offensive. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Our detailed field investigations covered just four cases – but the many survivors and witnesses we spoke to on the ground pointed to a civilian death toll in the high hundreds. In July, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the House of Commons that Amnesty’s findings were “unfounded” and characterised the report as “disgraceful”.

The intensity of the campaigns to re-take Raqqa in the months leading up to ‘liberation’ in October 2017 is reflected in the number of civilian casualties recorded by AOAV by month (due to all explosive weapons). In Raqqa city in July, August, September and October, there were 457, 695, 280 and 289 civilian casualties respectively. In November 2017, the number of civilian casualties dropped to 25, and in December 40.

In a letter written to AOAV in February 2018 on behalf of the Defence Secretary, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the Chief of the Air Staff, the Ministry of Defence’s Operations Directorate stated that, “The UK conducts assessments before each strike to assess what risk, if any, there are to civilians or civilian infrastructure. Following each strike we conduct further assessments to judge if the target was struck correctly and to assure, as far as is possible, that there were no unintended consequences resulting from our military action”. AOAV continues to urge the UK Government to review its processes for determining whether civilians are present before a strike is carried out and urges the RAF to avoid carrying out airstrikes in densely populated areas.