About 200 families are trapped in a shrinking area of Syria controlled by ISIL with its fighters preventing many from fleeing, the UN human rights chief said on Tuesday, accusing the armed group of possible war crimes.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) is on the brink of defeat in its last pocket in eastern Syria, the village of Baghouz, where about 300 fighters and 2,000 civilians are under siege by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
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Many of the families continue to face intensified air and ground attacks by US-led coalition forces, the UN’s Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
“We understand that ISIL appears to be preventing some of them, if not all of them, from leaving. So, that’s potentially a war crime on the part of ISIL,” her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.
US-backed forces said they were trying to evacuate civilians from ISIL’s last sliver of territory and warned fighters to surrender or face death.
“We are working on secluding and evacuating civilians and then, we will attack. This could happen soon,” SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.
The front line in Baghouz was largely quiet on Tuesday. Devastated buildings and the twisted skeletons of cars dotted the side of the road.
Baghouz is the main front in the nearly eight-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and sent millions fleeing Syria.
Colville said SDF troops attacking ISIL have an obligation under international law to take all precautions to protect civilians mixed in with the fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said some 50 trucks entered the ISIL-held area on Tuesday, apparently to bring out some of the people trapped inside.
In Syria’s northwest, meanwhile, Syrian government forces and their allies have intensified a bombing campaign in Idlib and surrounding areas in recent weeks, coupled with attacks by armed groups that have killed civilians, Bachelet said.
Twin explosions in the bustling centre of rebel-held Idlib city on Monday killed at least 16 people and wounded 70, she noted.
“Large numbers of civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people, in Idlib and northern Aleppo, are living an intolerable existence,” said Bachelet.
She also voiced concern for about 20,000 people who fled ISIL-controlled areas in eastern Deir Az Zor governorate in recent weeks.
They are being held in makeshift camps run by Kurdish armed groups, including SDF, which are reportedly preventing IDPs from leaving, she said.
“Particular care needs to be taken with the civilians and if possible they should be treated humanely, and allowed to leave the camps. They shouldn’t be held in detention unless they are suspected of committing a particular crime,” Colville said.
Near the border with Jordan, in the country’s south, the Syrian government on Tuesday opened two humanitarian passages with the assistance of Russian troops for people in a tent settlement who want to move to other parts of the country, the Russian defence ministry said.
The Rukban camp is home to some 40,000 displaced people, mostly women and children, who suffer from lack of food and medical supplies.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkey-Syria border, said it remained unclear if there was any communication between the rebel group, Free Syrian Army that controls the camp, and Russian and Syrian government forces to allow civilians to join the humanitarian corridors.
“The clock is ticking,” Khan said. “These humanitarian corridors are only open for 24 hours.”
Last week, the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered badly needed humanitarian assistance to Rukban as Russia offered to help relocate those willing to move to government-held areas in Syria.
Jordan closed the border over security concerns and the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, have blamed US troops stationed nearby for failing to provide security for aid shipments – allegations denied by the Americans.