By Syrian Voice Staff

A UN commission said on Wednesday that there has been a “staggering loss of civilian life” in the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa city, where activists claim no safe routes are available for civilians wishing to flee amid advances by United States-backed Syrian forces on the city.

The rise in civilian deaths is the result of a recent “intensification” of airstrikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Arab and Kurdish factions, commission chair Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said in a report presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 14.

The SDF launched a battle to capture Raqqa city from the Islamic State on June 6 and has since taken several of the city’s neighborhoods, including Mashlab and the industrial district in the east and the districts of al-Jizra and al-Rumaniyah in the west.

The current battle comes following months of clashes across Raqqa province as the SDF captured nearby towns and encircled Raqqa city, still home to as many as 200,000 civilians, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The U.S.-led coalition has coordinated with the SDF since the latter announced the campaign on Raqqa, also known as Operation Euphrates Wrath, last November. It supports the force through training, intelligence, logistical support and airstrikes.

Coalition planes carried out over 200 strikes near Raqqa city since the beginning of June, according to official numbers released by the coalition daily.

Coalition strikes hit Raqqa city. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

The coalition allegedly used incendiary white phosphorous near the frontlines in one strike last Thursday. Although militaries can legally possess white phosphorous, international law bans its use in civilian areas.

UN investigator Karen Abuzayd, who serves on the same commission as Pinheiro, known officially as the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, put the number of documented deaths caused by coalition airstrikes since March at 300.

Furat al-Wafa, founder and director of Reporters without Borders – Raqqa, a group documenting the situation in the city, puts the figure higher.

Speaking to the Syrian Voice from southern Turkey, he said that an estimated 700 were killed by coalition strikes in the last two months alone.

‘Indiscriminate bombing’

The Raqqa Province Council, affiliated with the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government, released a statement on Wednesday calling on the international coalition to protect civilian lives.

“For more than two weeks indiscriminate bombing by the international coalition and the SDF has continued in Raqqa, and day after day the number of civilians killed rises,” the statement said.

 The provincial council also called on the international coalition to “protect civilians and opens safe passages to allow them to leave the areas where clashes are taking place.”

A spokesperson for the Euphrates Wrath operation, Jihan Shaikh Ahmad, told the Syrian Voice last Thursday that “secure passages were opened from the west in the Mashlab neighborhood to allow for civilians to pass to SDF-controlled areas.”

However, al-Wafa, of Reporters without Borders – Raqqa, disputed that claim.

“Civilians are prohibited from entering SDF areas, supposedly because of fear that Daesh members are among them,” he said, using an alternate term for the Islamic State.

Only those with prior connections to the SDF are permitted to leave Raqqa city, he claimed.

Abo Fahed al-Ajeeli, a lawyer from Raqqa city who spoke with the Syrian Voice from Turkey, also claims that clear and safe passages have not been provided, noting that civilians received no information describing secure routes out of the city.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) expressed its own concern in a statement by its Middle East Director of Public Affairs, Thomas Garofalo, on June 6.

“Those who try to escape once SDF forces advance… risk being killed from mines and ISIS snipers as well as airstrikes,” he said.

“The IRC has seen a drop in the number of people escaping Raqqa,” he added, a possible indication that “ISIS intends to use the 200,000 people still trapped in the city as human shields.”

Despite the danger of fleeing, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on June 10 that an estimated 10,000 residents managed to leave the city since June 6 via the river south of the city, damaged bridges and land routes.

They join more than 170,000 residents who have been displaced by military operations in Raqqa province since April.

A coalition airstrike caused damage in the al-Handawi neighborhood of Raqqa. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

 ‘Judgement Day’ in Raqqa

Lacking the means to escape, civilians trapped inside Raqqa city face increasingly difficult living conditions.

In its weekly situation report on Raqqa province, OCHA says the water supply in Raqqa city has been cut off since the start of June and that most bakeries are out of service due to a lack of flour and diesel, which is used to operate generators.

The UN agency adds that mobile coverage in the city is cut off following the destruction of the main communication services building, while local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported on June 7 that the Islamic State has also banned all internet café services.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently released a report on Thursday outlining the challenges faced by civilians in areas still held by the Islamic State.

“Day after day, food and medical supplies diminish,” it says, adding that “all hospitals – public and private– are out of service, except for the Modern Medical Hospital which suffers from a lack of medical staff and huge pressure due to the number of injured persons.”

Residents are describing their situation as akin to “Judgement Day,” according to the report.

Original Arabic article found here.