ISIS has killed at least 231 civilians fleeing the besieged Iraqi city of Mosul in the space of eight days, according to a United Nations report published Thursday. The U.N. says it has observed a marked escalation in the use of civilians as human shields by the Islamic State group, and the slaughter of those civilians as they attempt to flee ISIS’ last major foothold in Iraq.
The increased level of civilian deaths comes almost eight months into the offensive to retake the city by pro-government forces, backed by a U.S.-led multinational coalition.
“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The latest wave of killings all happened as civilians were trying to flee the al-Shifa district in western Mosul and reach relatively safer areas controlled by Iraqi security forces. On May 26, the U.N. says, 27 civilians — including 14 women and five children — were killed; on June 1, 163 civilians were shot dead by militants during clashes with Iraqi security forces, with many of the bodies left lying on the side of the road; and on June 3 militants shot and killed at least 41 civilians.
- Mosul is the last major city where ISIS has a foothold in Iraq, but after eight months of fighting, it is estimated that just 1,000 militants remain in a cluster of neighborhoods in the western half of the city. However, over 100,000 civilians are also thought to be trapped inside the city.
- Having quickly captured the eastern side, the western half of Mosul has proved much trickier to navigate, with the advances slowing, and even stalling in recent months. Iraqi forces announced last month a renewed push to capture the final areas of the city still under ISIS control.
- While the escalating civilian deaths at the hands of ISIS is very worrying, it should be noted that a coalition airstrike in March on a building in western Mosul killed more than 100 Iraqi civilians. A Pentagon investigation last month concluded that ISIS had secretly packed the building with a large cache of explosives
- In total, the U.N. says that over 2,100 civilians have been killed and more than 1,500 injured in the Nineveh province since the start of the Mosul offensive last October. In that time, the Iraqi government says, over 580,000 people have been internally displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas.
- “I call on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that those who are responsible for these horrors are held accountable and brought to justice in line with international human rights laws and standards. The victims of such terrible crimes must not be forgotten,” Zeid added.