The civilian death toll from Western air strikes against Islamic State fighters is set to pass the 1,000 mark “within days”, independent monitors told The Independent on Sunday.
The revelation comes as David Cameron faces mounting pressure to honour his pledge to update Parliament on the impact of Britain’s military contribution to the war.
After the vote on 2 December authorising RAF air strikes in Syria, Mr Cameron pledged “quarterly updates” to Parliament. In the three months since, the Prime Minister has left it to Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, to inform MPs about the situation in Iraq and Syria.
MPs and peers, however, insist Mr Cameron left the clear impression that the updates would be on the UK’s military campaign – including the number of air strikes and civilian casualties and the success in driving back Islamic State – rather than on the wider diplomatic or humanitarian situation in the region.
An amendment laid in the House of Lords by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson last week would make it a statutory requirement to publish civilian casualty figures every three months. The Government insists British air strikes in Syria and Iraq have not killed a single civilian.
However, according to the independent NGO Airwars, 967 Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died as a result of air strikes by the 12 coalition states engaged in attacks on Isis. The figure was described in Parliament last week as “credible”. A source at the monitoring organisation said the figure would top 1,000 “within days”.
Britain has carried out 591 air strikes in Iraq and 36 in Syria – making up around a quarter of the 2,000 attacks carried out by countries other than the US in the international coalition against Isis. Russian air strikes are estimated to have killed up to 2,900 civilians.
But despite the figures, 11 out of 12 members of the coalition, including the UK, claim no civilian casualties have resulted from their strikes.
Lord Hodgson, a member of the all-party parliamentary committee on drones, told peers on 3 March that this would be “unprecedented in a major military engagement” and “naturally invites questions about how civilians are being classified”.
The former Conservative deputy chairman said it was crucial to be transparent about the scale of civilian deaths. He said: “We need to spend a lot of time making sure we carry the country with us.
“This is a particularly important area for our minority population. I do think it needs to be done with a degree of seriousness if it is to demand confidence.
“When civilians get killed in the course of war it is a recruiter for the extremists. But when women and children are killed it also destroys the fabric of society.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, said it was incumbent on Mr Cameron to update MPs on the UK’s military campaign.
He said: “Parliament voted to support the Prime Minister and support military action by the RAF in Syria.
“Parliament is entitled to detailed, quality reports by the Prime Minister setting out what impact that military action has had on Daesh [Isis] fighters and Daesh finances – and also confirmation of the number of civilian casualties caused by RAF action. We are well past a quarter in terms of the number of days.”
Labour’s shadow Defence Secretary, Emily Thornberry, added: “As the reported toll of civilian casualties from coalition bombing in Syria continues to rise, we need answers and accountability from the Government about the role that Britain’s air strikes are playing in this crisis. David Cameron promised quarterly reports to Parliament on the impact of his bombing campaign; keeping that promise is the least the British public deserve.”
A spokesman for Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said he had updated MPs in two private sessions attended by between 90 and 100 MPs. He said there had also been two updates in the Commons since the December vote – first by Mr Hammond, then by Ms Greening.
The spokesman suggested it was Mr Fallon’s “turn” next and that he would address the house shortly.
But Chris Woods, the director Airwars, said the gulf between military claims and credible reports from the ground “continues to grow ever wider”. He added: “In downplaying its own casualties so heavily, the alliance undercuts any leverage it might command with Russia – which continues to kill scores of civilians weekly in Syria.”
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