Anyone with access to an internet connection will soon be able to investigate civilian casualties caused by the US-led military coalition bombing of Raqqa during the battle to capture the city from Isis.
Amnesty International is launching a new project that it hopes will involve thousands of members of the public in its ongoing investigation into the destruction in the city.
“Strike Tracker”, designed in conjunction with independent casualty monitor Airwars, will allow anyone to sift through satellite pictures of Raqqa over the period of the battle and mark when a building was destroyed. Doing so will help investigators research potential war crimes.
“There is a mountain of evidence left to sift through, and the scale of the civilian devastation is simply too large for us to do this alone,” says Milena Marin, senior adviser for tactical research on Amnesty International’s Crisis Response team.
“With thousands of ‘Strike Trackers’ on the case to help us narrow down precisely when and where coalition air and artillery strikes destroyed buildings, we can significantly scale up our ability to map out the apocalyptic destruction in Raqqa.”
Around 80 per cent of Raqqa was destroyed and at least 1,400 civilians killed in the four-month battle that saw the the US-led coalition use overwhelming air power to oust jihadi fighters from their de facto capital last year.
Amnesty says the coalition has shown little interest in properly accounting for the death toll. In lieu of a proactive effort by the coalition to find out how many civilians it killed, the rights group has been conducting on-the-ground investigations of its own in Raqqa, which it claims has produced “compelling evidence of apparent violations of international humanitarian law”.
Those investigations led the coalition to revise its initial civilian casualty assessment for the city from 23 to more than 100. But that number is “just the tip of the iceberg”, according to Ms Marin.
“The coalition’s blatant denials and shoulder-shrugging are unconscionable – their military offensive killed and maimed hundreds of civilians and then left the survivors to pick up the pieces,” she says.
Raqqa was liberated from Isis by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2017. The fighters faced an entrenched enemy and required overwhelming US air power and military support to capture the city.
During the battle, Isis prevented civilians from leaving and used them as human shields – a tactic which greatly contributed to the high civilian death toll. But Amnesty says the coalition failed to properly adapt its strategy to protect civilians.
In October, Amnesty claimed its investigation into the coalition’s air campaign in Raqqa provided “a strong prima facie case that many coalition attacks that killed and injured civilians and destroyed homes and infrastructure violated international humanitarian law”.
A spokesperson for the coalition told The Independent at the time that “the cost of liberating Raqqa came at a very high cost”, but insisted there was no alternative.
“The fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life that used IEDs and booby traps every step of the way, and Raqqa citizens as human shields,” said US army colonel Sean Ryan.
“Liberating the citizens of Raqqa was the goal and the other choice would be to let Isis continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is simply unacceptable,” he added.
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