Over 300 civilians have been killed since last month in an offensive against the Islamic State group in western Mosul, the U.N. said on Tuesday, adding the toll could exceed 400 if fresh killings are verified.
“According to information verified by the U.N. Human Rights Office and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, at least 307 people were killed… between Feb. 17 and 22 March,” the U.N. rights office said in a statement. The U.N. also has “reports” of another 95 people killed in four western Mosul neighborhoods between March 23 and 26, it said.
The rights office said it was not in a position to provide a breakdown of the deaths caused by I.S. violence and airstrikes by the international anti-jihadist coalition.
Iraqi forces are being supported by the coalition in an effort to dislodge I.S. from Iraq’s second-largest city. Baghdad and the U.S. defense department are investigating reports that coalition airstrikes have killed dozens if not hundreds of people in recent days.
U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he welcomed the probes and that his office did not directly blame the coalition for any specific deaths. But he called for “an urgent review of tactics to ensure that the impact on civilians is reduced to an absolute minimum.”
With I.S. reportedly using civilians as human shields in buildings around western Mosul, Zeid’s spokesman Rupert Colville noted that it was “clearly not easy” to ensure that non-combatants were spared. “What we are saying is that in these circumstances you have got to be exceptionally careful,” Colville told reporters in Geneva.
Referring to the March 17 bombing of a house in the Al-Jadida neighborhood that killed a large number of civilians, Colville said I.S. had packed the building with at least 140 people who were used as shields. Witnesses said I.S. had also “booby-trapped the house” with improvised explosive devices, according to the U.N.
There was also evidence that I.S. was forcing families to remain in at least 15 frontline western Mosul homes, using the sites to launch attacks on government forces.
Zeid called the use of human shields “an act of monstrous depravity.”
More than 200,000 civilians have fled west Mosul in the past month, according to Iraqi authorities. But some 600,000 remain in I.S.-held sectors, which include two thirds of the Mosul’s Old City, a warren of narrow streets, according to the United Nations.