THERE is “no worse place on earth” than Raqqa, in Syria, where Islamic State (IS) is using civilians as human shields during the bombardment, a UN official has said.
Claimed by IS as its capital in 2014, the city is being heavily shelled by forces seeking to liberate it, supported by constant air raids by the US-led coalition.
Amnesty International reports that hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since the offensive began in June. Since November, 75,000 people have fled the city, but 18,000 to 25,000 civilians remain trapped.
Last week, Jan Egeland, special adviser to the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told journalists that the international community must do more to enable people to flee.
“Now is the time to think of possibilities, pauses or otherwise that might facilitate the escape of civilians, knowing that Islamic State fighters are doing their absolute best to use them as human shields,” Mr Egeland said.
“I cannot think of a worse place on earth now than in these five neighbourhoods and for these 20,000 people.” Conditions inside the city were “very bleak”, he said.
Survivors and witnesses have told Amnesty International of booby traps and snipers who target anyone trying to flee, as well as the threat from the air and bombardment from Syrian government forces in villages and camps near by.
“Thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides,” Amnesty International’s senior crisis-response adviser, Donatella Rovera, said.
She called on the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States to “redouble efforts to protect civilians”, including “avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes”. She condemned the bombing of boats, which were a “key escape route” for fleeing.
Under the Geneva process, intra-Syrian talks are due to resume this month, as are talks in Kazakhstan between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Mr de Mistura has said that the UN hopes for a “serious negotiation” between the government and a unified Syrian opposition in October or November.
More than 600,000 displaced Syrians returned home in the first seven months of 2017, of which 97 per cent went to their own house. Only 41 per cent have access to water and 39 per cent to health services. More than six million remain displaced within the country.