Syria war: Human Rights Watch criticises deaths of civilians in airstrikes by US-led coalition

Syria war: Human Rights Watch criticises deaths of civilians in airstrikes by US-led coalition

Syria war: Human Rights Watch criticises deaths of civilians in airstrikes by US-led coalition

Updated 25 September 2017, 9:10 AEST

Dozens of Syrian civilians who were sheltering in a school were reportedly buried in a mass grave after being killed in an air strike.

An old man stands beside a destroyed building in the town of Mansoura near Raqqa in north-eastern Syria.

Key points:

  • Human Rights Watch says at least 84 civilians, including 30 children, died in two airstrikes
  • HRW investigators have recently gained access to areas liberated from Islamic State
  • A school and a market were reportedly struck within two days

"The mother and father are buried here. Six people in this grave," he tells Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigators, pointing at the dusty site.

"A man with an excavator told me he buried 60 people in this place without any help. No prayers, they were just piled and buried."

The man was interviewed as part of a new report by HRW that accuses the US-led coalition of not taking adequate precautions to minimise civilian casualties when hitting IS targets.

"The first things that struck me when we arrived at the sites was the extent of the destruction. And it's hard to believe that anybody could have survived these attacks," Ole Solvang, the deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told the ABC.

Mr Solvang and his colleagues have recently returned from northern Syria, where they were investigating alleged civilian casualty incidents in recently liberated IS-held areas.

"As soon as these areas became accessible one of our priorities was to get there get on the ground, see these sites for ourselves and speak to witnesses," he said.

HRW says its on-the-ground investigations found that two coalition airstrikes on Islamic State targets in March also killed at least 84 civilians, including 30 children.

"We have serious concerns that the coalition did not take the necessary precautions before they launched these attacks. And we say that because there were so many civilians in these places," Mr Solvang said.

Witnesses tell of airstrikes

The HRW team says it interviewed witnesses and survivors of a coalition airstrike on a school building where displaced families were sheltering in the IS-held town of Mansoura near Raqqa on March 20.

"We talked to relatives of people who stayed in the school. We talked to first responders who helped, who extracted bodied from under the rubble. We talked to medical personal and we found even a few survivors," Mr Solvang said.

"We did confirm that there were ISIS members in the school but there were also dozens of civilians."

The US-led coalition, of which Australia is a member, has acknowledged it conducted the strike on the school but says it was an ISIS headquarters and a weapons storage facility.

It says it had been monitoring the school and denied any civilians were present at the site.

Human Rights Watch says this does not match up with the evidence.

"So we have a list of about 40 civilians including about 15 children who were killed in the school," Mr Solvag said.

"But we do think the actual number is higher. Because there were many names that they didn't know."

Mr Solvang and his team also investigated an airstrike on a market and a bakery in the town of Tabqa on March 22.

"There were some ISIS members in the market. This could have been the target of the coalition but there were also dozens of civilians around," he said.

"The market was full of people. There were people lining up outside the bakery to buy bread and there was an airstrike that almost completely destroyed this whole thing."

HRW says 44 civilians died in the market airstrike, including 14 children.

The NGO reports that the US-led coalition told them it was still assessing the allegation coalition aircraft were behind the Tabqa market attack. HRW says it believes the circumstances of the attack make it unlikely that anyone else was responsible.

"If the coalition did not know there were so many civilians there then there is something wrong with their intelligence," Mr Solvang said.

"If the coalition knew that there were civilians, there is the question over whether the attacks were proportionate. Under international law you can only launch attacks where the expected military gain exceeds the civilian harm."

Coalition says it strives to limit civilian harm

The ABC asked the US-led coalition body CENTCOM for an interview to discuss the allegations but they declined.

In a statement, they told the ABC:

"We are aware of the allegations and take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously.

"We can, however, say the Coalition's goal is always for zero civilian casualties. The Coalition has done, and continues to do, everything within its power to limit harm to non-combatants and civilian infrastructure. We apply rigorous standards to our targeting process and take extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants.

"In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition strikes only valid military targets, after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction. The Coalition conducts a detailed assessment of each and every allegation of possible civilian casualties."

CENTCOM would not confirm if they had been to the two sites to conduct their own investigations.

Mr Solvang says he doesn't believe they have. He claims American forces have been witnessed in the area, asking locals about information on where foreign IS members lived.

"If they can do that they can go and collect that kind of intelligence. They can also investigate from their own strikes. It's a matter of priority and how much they care about finding out the truth of those cases," he said.

"So what we are calling on the coalition to do is to conduct that full investigation, go to the sites, interview witnesses."