The United Nations expressed profound concern on Saturday over the escalating number of civilian casualties reported in the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIL.
“We are stunned by this terrible loss of life,” Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement referring to reports of an incident on March 17 that killed dozens of people in Mosul’s ISIL-held al-Jadida district, apparently involving air raids by Iraqi or US-led coalition forces.
Civil defence officials and residents have said many people lay buried in collapsed buildings after air raids against ISIL triggered a big explosion.
The exact cause of the collapses was not clear but a local politician and two residents said the air raids may have detonated an ISIL truck filled with explosives, destroying buildings in the heavily-populated area.
Reports on the numbers of civilian casualties have varied but Civil Defence chief Brigadier Mohammed Al-Jawari told reporters on Thursday that rescue teams had recovered 40 bodies from collapsed buildings.
Nawfal Hammadi, the governor of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, said the coalition had carried out the air raids in al-Jadida, killing “more than 130 civilians”.
“The Daesh terrorist organisation is seeking to stop the advance of the Iraqi forces in Mosul at any cost, and it is gathering civilians … and using them as human shields,” Hammadi told the AFP news agency, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and is also known as ISIS.
Bassma Bassim, the head of the Mosul District Council, said “more than 500” civilians were killed by air raids over the past week alone.
“I have never met so many people with so many martyrs in their families,” Bassim said, adding that witnesses are questioning whether civilians are being targeted on purpose.
“I have talked to so many people from the victims’ families who confirmed that there are only five or six ISIL fighters in the new Mosul area who freely move in the streets without being targeted. They said only civilians in the area are being targeted.”
The coalition said it is investigating the reports.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Erbil in northern Iraq, said it is very difficult to independently confirm the tolls.
“All what we’re hearing is actually estimates because simply it is a very difficult battle; you have on one side the Iraqi security forces, on the other ISIL and then you have air strikes – and all this is going on at the same time, while civilians in the middle are trying to flee for their lives.”
Mark Kimmitt, a former US assistant secretary for political and military affairs, told Al Jazeera that while the deaths of civilians were unfortunate, such “incidents happen in combat”.
“Coalition forces are doing everything they can, along with Iraqi security forces, to minimise civilian casualties.
“But let’s be clear [ISIL] deliberately kept civilians in this area for this specific purpose.”
The US-backed offensive to drive ISIL out of Mosul, now in its sixth month, has recaptured most of the city. The entire eastern side and about half of the west is under Iraqi control.
But advances have stuttered in the last two weeks as fighting enters the narrow alleys of the Old City, home to the al-Nuri mosque where ISIL group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Al Jazeera’s Abdel-Hamid said thousands of civilians are “trapped” inside the Old City and exposed to the intense fighting.
“ISIL fighters have been using snipers on top of the building in the city shooting randomly at any civilians, including children,” she said.
“Many children in the hospital near Erbil have known to be specifically targeted by these snipers. We can see a very complicated battle ahead.”
Iraqi government forces have temporarily paused their push to recapture Mosul because of the high rate of civilian casualties, a security forces spokesman said.
“The recent high death toll among civilians inside the Old City forced us to halt operations to review our plans,” a Federal Police spokesman said on Saturday.
“It’s a time for weighing new offensive plans and tactics. No combat operations are to go on.”
The fighters have used civilians as human shields and opened fire on them as they try to escape ISIL-held neighbourhoods, fleeing residents said.
The UN’s Grande said civilians were at extreme risk as the fighting in Mosul intensified and all sides must to do their utmost to avoid such casualties.
“International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict — all parties – are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians. This means that combatants cannot use people as human shields and cannot imperil lives through indiscriminate use of fire-power,” she said.
Fleeing residents have described grim living conditions inside the city, saying there was no running water or electricity and no food coming in. Aid agencies say as many as 600,000 civilians remain in the western half of Mosul.
The eastern side of the city was recaptured in a three-month offensive that ended in January, but the west, with its densely populated maze of narrow streets, is thought to pose a greater challenge.