US general says 'hard' to protect Mosul civilians
A senior US general on Wednesday said it would be difficult to protect civilians in Mosul, after scores were killed in a suspected coalition airstrike as the fight against the Islamic State group intensifies.
General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told a congressional hearing that the standards used by the US military to avoid civilian casualties would be difficult to apply in the narrow, crowded streets of the Old City in west Mosul.
"I do agree that as we move into these urban environments, it is going to become more and more difficult to apply extraordinarily high standards for the things that we're doing, although we will try," Votel said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Votel told the committee that the rules of engagement had been changed, despite a huge increase in civilian casualties due to US military action in Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, another US general admitted a possible US role in the deaths of up to 150 civilians in an airstrike on Mosul.
"We probably had a role in those casualties," US General Stephen Townsend, who commands the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters in a phone briefing from Baghdad.
"If those innocents were killed, it was an unintentional accident of war," he said.
The March 17 airstrike on west Mosul has killed up to 150 people, according to Amnesty International, though Iraqi civil defence has reported a much higher figure.
US officials have said that an increase in civilian casualties was to be expected as the war against IS in Mosul entered its deadliest phase.
However, the comments about “standards” by Votel are likely to cause alarm, especially with human rights groups already accusing the US-led coalition of failing to protect civilians.
Amnesty International on Tuesday said evidence gathered from Mosul "points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside".
It added that any failure to take precautions to prevent civilian casualties would be "in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law."
Iraqi forces have been engaged in house-to-house fighting to dislodge IS fighters from their last stronghold in western Mosul, backed by coalition airstrikes.
The United Nations estimates about 400,000 people remain trapped in IS-held neighbourhoods in western Mosul.
Amnesty International's report quoted survivors and eyewitnesses of airstrikes that have killed civilians as saying that "they did not try to flee as the battle got underway because they received repeated instructions from the Iraqi authorities to remain in their homes".