The United Nations Human Rights Office said Thursday it has “credible reports” indicating that ISIS militants have shot dead children attempting to escape western Mosul, in addition to reports of a “significant escalation” in civilians deaths in the battle for the Iraqi city.
It also said it was investigating reports that 50-80 people had died in an air strike on the Zanjili district of Mosul on May 31. It did not say who carried out the strike.
The reported killings happened between May 26 and June 3, all in the al-Shifa neighborhood, and involved people trying to escape ISIS-held areas to locations held by Iraqi troops.
“Credible reports indicate that more than 231 civilians attempting to flee western Mosul have been killed since 26 May, including at least 204 over three days last week alone,” the UN human rights office said in a statement.
“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts,” the statement quoted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as saying.
Iraqi government forces retook eastern Mosul in January and began a push on May 27 to capture the remaining ISIS-held enclave in the western side of the city, where about 200,000 people are trapped in harrowing conditions.
The fate of civilians still living in Iraq’s second-largest city has been a major concern, with rights groups, aid organizations and the United Nations warning of supply shortages and the danger of having the battle play out in tight streets.
Last week Iraqi police said at least seven civilians had been killed by ISIS mortar shells in the Zanjili area of western Mosul.
But a young man told Reuters he had been wounded when an air strike hit a group of 200-250 civilians collecting water because an ISIS fighter was hiding among them.
The UN statement said the deaths in Zanjili were reportedly caused by one of several recent air strikes that had inflicted civilian casualties and it was seeking further information about those attacks, without elaborating.
“The murder of civilians, as well as the intentional directing of an attack against civilians who are not directly taking part in hostilities, are war crimes,” it said.
ISIS’ self-declared “caliphate” is in retreat across Iraq and Syria. US-backed Syrian forces this week launched an operation to capture Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria.