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Syria mass graves: Local group 'needs exhumation help'

Shamil Shams with AP
July 3, 2018

Human Rights Watch has said a local group working to uncover mass graves in formerly IS-held areas needs "international support and technical assistance to preserve evidence of possible crimes and identify the remains."

Raqqa, Syria
Image: Filip Warwick

New York-based rights watchdog HRW said on Monday in a report that thousands of bodies — both of civilians and militants — remain to be uncovered from an unknown number of mass graves in Syria's Raqqa city and nearby areas.

Large parts of Raqqa are in ruin after a US-led coalition freed the city from "Islamic State" (IS) control in October last year.

Read more: Syrian Democratic Forces liberate Raqqa from 'Islamic State' 

The militant group detained thousands of civilians during its control of the area, from June 2014 to October 2017.

HRW said the Raqqa Civil Council, a local group of volunteers, was "struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of collecting and organizing information" on the bodies recovered from mass graves in Syria's northwestern provinces.

"Raqqa city has at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumation a monumental task," said Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW's acting emergencies director.

Read more: UN creates team to investigate IS war crimes in Iraq as 'caliphate' crumbles

'Crucial for justice'

HRW said that identifying dead bodies and preserving evidence of possible IS persecutions was critical for the country's future.

"Without the right technical assistance, these exhumations may not provide families with the answers they have been waiting for and could damage or destroy evidence crucial to future justice efforts," Motaparthy said.

Most local team members are volunteers who do not have forensic expertise, HRW added.

The mass graves reportedly contain bodies of both civilian victims and IS fighters.

In late 2017, families of some Raqqa detainees launched a campaign, "Where are the kidnapped by ISIS?" — using one of several acronyms for the Islamist group — to seek coalition's support in finding the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Local authorities estimate that thousands of people were killed in Raqqa and nearby areas during the battle to retake the city. Most of the dead were collectively buried in haste.

Read more: UN creates team to investigate IS war crimes in Iraq as 'caliphate' crumbles