UN rights chief: Anti-IS campaigns in Syria lose sight of real goal

GENEVA/BEIRUT, Albert Otti, Weedah Hamzah and Shabtai Gold (dpa) - Foreign forces that fight Islamic State extremists in the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqa fail to avoid civilian deaths, forgetting that the aim of this operation is to help Syrians, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein charged on Thursday.
The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva has verified that at least 151 civilians were killed this month in air attacks on al-Raqqa, Islamic State's de-facto capital in war-torn Syria.

The US-led alliance that fights to defeat extremists in the city, and the separate Russian air force operation, conducted more than 2,000 airstrikes in or around al-Raqqa in August.
"I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times - are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle," Zeid said, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.
"Surely the purpose of defeating ISIL should be to protect and assist civilians who have been suffering under their murderous regime," the UN high commissioner for human rights said.
The 20,000 civilians who are trapped in al-Raqqa are not only being bombarded, but also used as human shields by Islamic State.
Zeid's comments echoed remarks of the outgoing UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, who urged UN Security Council members on Wednesday to protect civilians in the battle for al-Raqqa.
Once al-Raqqa is liberated, the battle will shift to Islamic State's eastern stronghold of Deir al-Zour, Zeid said, appealing to all sides in the conflict to spare the population there.
A Kurdish-led alliance supported by the US is engaged in a months-long campaign aimed at driving Islamic State hardliners from al-Raqqa.
In recent months, Islamic State has suffered a string of military setbacks in Syria and neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon.
But a US commander on Thursday questioned reports that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.
"I do believe he is alive. When we find him, we will try to kill him first, probably not worth the trouble to capture [him]," Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the anti-Islamic State coalition, added.
In June, Russia claimed it could have killed al-Baghdadi in an airstrike around al-Raqqa on May 28.
Townsend said the alliance forces did not strike at buses carrying Islamic State militants heading to the radical group's stronghold in eastern Syria this week.
"Strikes targeted ISIS vehicles, which came out to link up with the buses," he added in a briefing to the Pentagon press corps, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.
On Wednesday, a US-led coalition strike had delayed the movement of buses carrying around 400 Islamic State extremists and their families from Lebanon and Syria's western Qalamoun region towards the group's eastern bastion of Deir al-Zour, bordering Iraq.
The evacuation was part of a deal between the radical group on the one hand and Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement and its allied Syrian government on the other.
The deal foresees that Islamic State hardliners move to Deir al-Zour from Lebanon in exchange for the radical group handing over the bodies of fighters affiliated to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement who were killed in Syria's war.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah disclosed Thursday that he had met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and discussed the deal.
“I headed to [Syrian] president Bashar al-Assad and asked him for a settlement to move Daesh [Islamic State] militants with the aim of finding out the fate of the kidnapped [Lebanese] servicemen,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Nine Lebanese army soldiers were taken hostage by Islamic State, after the jihadist movement overran the north-eastern town of Arsal in 2014.
On Sunday, the Lebanese authorities said remains believed to be of eight of the soldiers were found in the outskirts of Arsal.
The fate of the ninth soldier is not yet clear.

Friday, September 1st 2017
Albert Otti, Weedah Hamzah and Shabtai Gold

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