GENEVA • Intensified coalition air strikes supporting an assault by United States-backed forces on ISIS' stronghold of Raqqa in Syria are causing a "staggering loss of civilian life", said United Nations war crimes investigators.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - a group of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by the US-led coalition - began to attack Raqqa a week ago, in a bid to retake it from the militant forces.
The SDF, supported by heavy coalition air strikes, has taken territory to the west, east and north of the city.
In an address to the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, Mr Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of an independent commission of inquiry for Syria, said: "We note in particular that the intensification of air strikes - which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa - has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced."
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Mr Pinheiro provided no figures for civilian casualties in Raqqa, where rival forces are racing to capture ground from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Syrian army is also advancing on the desert area to the west of the city.
Separately, Human Rights Watch, in a statement, expressed concern about the use of incendiary white phosphorous weapons by the US-led coalition in the fight against ISIS, saying it endangered civilians when used in populated areas.
In a speech to the 47-member forum in Geneva, the US delegation made no reference to Raqqa or the air strikes. US envoy Jason Mack called the Syrian regime "the primary perpetrator" of egregious human rights violations in the country.
Mr Pinheiro said if the international coalition's offensive is successful, it could liberate Raqqa's civilian population, including Yazidi women and girls, "whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years, as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide".
"The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where ISIL is present," he added, using another name for ISIS.
Mr Pinheiro also said 10 agreements between the Syrian government and armed groups to evacuate fighters and civilians from besieged areas, including eastern Aleppo last December, "in some cases, amount to war crimes" because the civilians had "no choice".
Syria's envoy to the UN in Geneva, Mr Hussam Edin Aala, denounced violations "committed by the unlawful US-led coalition, which targets infrastructure, killing hundreds of civilians including the deaths of 30 civilians in Deir al-Zor".
More than 320,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 with demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE