Amnesty: U.S. coali­tion strikes killed thou­sands

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Hiba Dle­wati Hiba Dle­wati is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

BEIRUT — The U.S.led coali­tion’s fail­ure to ad­e­quately ac­knowl­edge and in­ves­ti­gate civil­ian deaths in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for sur­vivors” try­ing to re­build their lives a year af­ter the of­fen­sive to oust the Is­lamic State, a prom­i­nent rights group said Fri­day.

At a news con­fer­ence in the Lebanese cap­i­tal, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said 2,521 bod­ies from the bat­tle for Raqqa have been re­cov­ered in the city, the ma­jor­ity killed by coali­tion air strikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Re­cov­ery Team work­ing with U.S.backed pre­dom­i­nantly Kur­dish forces to re­cover bod­ies and bury them. They ex­pect to re­cover at least 3,000 more bod­ies.

There are “more bod­ies un­der­neath the ground than liv­ing souls,” said Anna Nei­s­tat, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s se­nior direc­tor of global re­search, who re­cently re­turned from Syria.

Coali­tion of­fi­cials did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Fri­day.

The bat­tle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 peo­ple, played out over four months in 2017 with the coali­tion play­ing a sup­port­ing role as the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian forces fought street by street. The coali­tion un­leashed wave af­ter wave of air strikes and shell fire un­til the last of the mil­i­tants left Raqqa in Oc­to­ber 2017.

Amnesty has ac­cused the coali­tion be­fore of un­der­re­port­ing civil­ian deaths in the cam­paign to lib­er­ate Raqqa.

On Mon­day, Nei­s­tat said most of the bod­ies re­cov­ered so far are be­lieved to be civil­ians.

The U.S.-led coali­tion said in July that 77 civil­ians died as a re­sult of its air strikes on Raqqa be­tween June and Oc­to­ber last year. The U.S. and its coali­tion part­ners launched their cam­paign against the Is­lamic State in 2014, driv­ing out the mil­i­tants from their self­pro­claimed cap­i­tal in Raqqa three years later.

Nei­s­tat also said the “clock is tick­ing” for Idlib prov­ince, the last op­po­si­tion strong­hold in north­west­ern Syria. A de­mil­i­ta­rized zone ne­go­ti­ated be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia to pro­tect civil­ians from a govern­ment of­fen­sive on the north­west­ern prov­ince should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turk­ish and Rus­sian of­fi­cials have said that Syr­ian rebels com­pleted with­draw­ing their heavy weapons from the front lines in im­ple­men­ta­tion of the deal that’s ex­pected to de­mil­i­ta­rize a stretch of 9-12 miles along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Nei­s­tat said the zone is not ad­e­quate to pro­tect all the civil­ians in Idlib prov­ince and ex­pressed con­cern the agree­ment may not last. She said she fears mas­sive civil­ian deaths, de­struc­tion, dis­place­ment, ar­rests and dis­ap­pear­ances, cit­ing pre­vi­ous govern­ment of­fen­sives in cities like Aleppo.

Nei­s­tat called on Rus­sia to pres­sure the Syr­ian govern­ment to take into ac­count civil­ian life, point­ing to Moscow’s in­flu­ence on Da­m­as­cus.

“It may not be too late to stop it,” she said.

Mean­while on Fri­day, Turkey’s pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan sug­gested that Turkey’s mil­i­tary could soon launch a new op­er­a­tion across the bor­der into north­ern Syria, in zones held by Syr­ian Kur­dish fighters.

Ankara con­sid­ers the Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia to be ter­ror­ists and part of a Kur­dish in­sur­gency within Turkey.

“God will­ing, very soon ... we will leave the ter­ror nests east of the Euphrates in dis­ar­ray,” he said.

Has­san Am­mar / As­so­ci­ated Press

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Anna Nei­s­tat said 2,521 bod­ies from the bat­tle for the city of Raqqa have been re­cov­ered, the ma­jor­ity killed by coali­tion air strikes. She said there could be at least 3,000 more bod­ies.

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