Rights group urges U.S. to sanction China over Xinjiang camps

Flags of U.S. and China are displayed at American International Chamber of Commerce (AICC)'s booth during China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States, embroiled in a trade war with China, should also impose sanctions on China for detaining an estimated one million Uighurs in its Xinjiang region, where repression has not abated, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The Trump administration has been weighing sanctions against Chinese officials, including Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, since late last year, and though it has ramped up criticism it has held back from imposing the measures.

China has faced growing global condemnation for setting up complexes in the remote western region that U.N. experts describe as mass detention centers holding more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.

In March, China’s vice foreign minister defended what Beijing calls its vocational training centers for Muslims and said its “campuses” would be closed down gradually as extremist ideology is vanquished in the region.

“Here we have got a U.S. administration that is clearly fine with the idea of imposing serious economic sanctions, but then seems to be lagging behind on imposing them for serious human rights violations,” Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, told a briefing in Geneva.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers last month faulted the Trump administration for failing so far to impose sanctions over China’s alleged rights abuses against its Muslim minority and called for punitive measures against a senior Communist Party official and Chinese companies.

The lawmakers called on the administration to apply sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. This federal law allows the U.S. government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any U.S. assets, U.S. travel bans and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.

“We believe that senior Xinjiang officials and national officials who are implicated in the crisis in Xinjiang should be subject to global Magnitsky sanctions,” Richardson said.

“The situation in Xinjiang is far from improving. If anything, (there is) the failure to release large numbers of people, and the desire to spin this as some sort of essential national security strategy that really is about vocational training rather than arbitrary detention,” she said.

The U.S. Senate and House are considering draft bills, variations of the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, both of which enjoy “very broad bipartisan support”, she added.

Human Rights Watch published a report this month entitled “China’s Algorithms of Repression”, on a mass surveillance app used by Xinjiang police to track citizens that has led to arrests.

“One of our concerns coming out of this project really is about these oceanic data sets that the Chinese government has now gathered and how exactly they are being used,” Richardson said.

The U.S.-based activist group is lobbying the 47 member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council to hold China to account for abuses at the three-week session opening on June 24.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Stephen Powell)

Rights campaigners seek U.N. probe on China’s Xinjiang camps

FILE PHOTO: Residents at the Kashgar city vocational educational training centre dance for visiting reporters and officials in a classroom during a government organised visit in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Rights activists urged European and Muslim nations on Monday to take the lead in establishing a U.N. investigation into China’s detention and what they call its “forced indoctrination” of up to one million Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province.

Beijing, which faces growing international concern over its “de-radicalisation” program for Muslims in its far western province, said last month it would welcome U.N. officials if they avoided “interfering in domestic matters”.

Groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which opens its main annual session on Feb. 25, to send an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang.

FILE PHOTO: Islamic studies students attend a class at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute during a government organised trip in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Islamic studies students attend a class at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute during a government organised trip in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

“The abuse in Xinjiang today is so severe that it cries out for international action,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told a briefing at the Geneva Press Club.

“The purpose of this detention is to erase the ethnic and religious identities of Turkic Muslims and ensure their loyalty to only the Chinese government, the Communist Party and the would-be leader for life, (President) Xi Jinping,” he said.

China denies such accusations. In January, Beijing organized a visit to three facilities, which it calls vocational education training centers, for foreign reporters including Reuters. In the centers, Turkic-speaking Uighur students learned in Mandarin about the dangers of Islamist ideas.

“OPEN-AIR PRISON”

Campaigners say one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities – nearly 10 percent of Xinjiang’s total population – are being held in mass detention, deprived of any legal rights and subjected to mistreatment.

“Today Xinjiang has become an open-air prison – a place where Orwellian high-tech surveillance, political indoctrination, forced cultural assimilation, arbitrary arrests and disappearances have turned ethnic minorities into strangers in their own land,” Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said by video.

“Member states must not be cowed by China’s economic and political clout,” he said.

China says it protects the religion and culture of its ethnic minorities and that security measures in Xinjiang are needed to counter groups that incite violence there.

China is currently a member of the 47-nation Geneva forum, where it often leads opposition to setting up investigations into allegations of rights abuses in specific countries.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which acts as the collective voice of the Muslim world, worked with the European Union last September to launch a U.N. body to prepare evidence of crimes in Myanmar against Muslim Rohingya, including possible genocide, for any future prosecution.

“In our view Xinjiang demands a similar response,” Roth said.

Michael Ineichen of the International Service for Human Rights said: “It is really a test of the credibility of the Human Rights Council… We think it is time that membership also comes with scrutiny.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)

End ‘containment’ of asylum-seekers on islands, aid groups tell Greek PM

: Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016.

ATHENS (Reuters) – Over a dozen human rights groups and aid organizations wrote to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday urging him to end the “containment” of asylum seekers in island camps.

More than 13,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis fleeing years of war, are living in five camps on Greek islands close to Turkey, government figures show. Four of those camps are holding two to three times as many people as they were designed for.

Those who arrive on Greek islands following a European deal with Turkey last year to stem the flow are forbidden from traveling to mainland until their asylum applications are processed, and those who do not qualify are deported.

Applications have piled up and rulings can take weeks. A recent sharp rise in arrivals has piled additional misery on overcrowded facilities.

The 19 signatories, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam, said the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros had been “transformed into places of indefinite confinement.”

“We urge you to put an end to the ongoing ‘containment policy’ of trapping asylum seekers on the islands … and to immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and meet their protection needs,” they wrote.

They described conditions as “abysmal” and said many asylum-seekers lacked access to adequate and timely procedures and protection. Some have been on the islands for 19 months.

“Reception conditions are deteriorating, and gaps in basic services, especially medical, are increasing,” they wrote.

Thousands of people, including young children, are crammed into tents with only a cloth separating one family from another, the groups said, and conditions were particularly harsh for pregnant women.

Nearly 23,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, a fraction compared to the nearly 1 million who arrived in 2015, but state-run camps are struggling to cope with the numbers.

As an emergency measure, the government has said it plans to move about 2,000 people from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland.

In recent weeks, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) its research showed a mental health emergency was unfolding in migrant camps on the islands, fueled by poor living conditions, neglect and violence.

The United Nations refugee agency called on Greece to speed up preparations at those camps, saying they were ill-prepared for winter.

 

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

Iraq collectively punishing Islamic State families: HRW

A military vehicle of Iraqi security forces is seen next to an old bridge destroyed by clashes in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

ERBIL (Reuters) – Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi security forces of forcibly relocating at least 170 families of alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” as a form of collective punishment.

“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken from ISIS.”

Islamic State is also known as ISIS. An Iraqi military spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced victory over Islamic State in Mosul, ending three years of jihadist rule in the stronghold of their self-proclaimed caliphate.

Iraq’s government now faces the task of preventing revenge attacks against people associated with Islamic State that could, along with sectarian tensions, undermine efforts to create long-term stability in the country.

“The camps for so-called ISIS families have nothing to do with rehabilitation and are instead de facto detention centers for adults and children who have not been accused of any wrongdoing,” Fakih said. “These families should be freely permitted to go where they can live safely.”

Iraqi authorities have opened the first of what they describe as “rehabilitation” camps in Bartalla, just east of Mosul. Human Rights Watch says the official purpose of the camp is to enable psychological and ideological rehabilitation.

“Forced displacements and arbitrary detentions have been taking place in Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Nineveh governorates, altogether affecting hundreds of families,” the group said.

“Iraqi security and military forces have done little to stop these abuses, and in some instances participated in them.”

Human Rights Watch said it visited Bartalla camp and interviewed 14 families, each with up to 18 members.

“New residents said that Iraqi Security Forces had brought the families to the camp and that the police were holding them against their will because of accusations that they had relatives linked to ISIS,” said Human Rights Watch.

“Medical workers at the camp said that at least 10 women and children had died traveling to or at the camp, most because of dehydration.”

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Packed Iraq morgue reveals toll of Mosul conflict

An Iraqi boy walks past a building destroyed during the fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic states militants in Qayyara,

By Isabel Coles

QAYYARA, Iraq (Reuters) – Packed Iraq morgue reveals toll of Mosul conflict Doctor Mansour Maarouf dons a surgical mask as he approaches the morgue refrigerator and pauses before pulling open the door to an icy blast. “In the name of God,” he says out of respect for the dead.

Inside, around two dozen corpses lie on the floor: some in body bags, several wrapped in blankets and a few so torn to pieces they come in sacks.

Nearly all of them are victims of the ongoing battle to dislodge Islamic State militants from Mosul, around 60 km further north. On the deadliest day so far, 21 bodies arrived at the hospital in the town of Qayyara.

The morgue gives a sense of the heavy toll the conflict is taking on civilians, but also highlights the practical challenges of dealing with the dead when infrastructure is ruined and administration has collapsed.

Staff at the hospital, which is run by aid group Women’s Alliance Health International (WAHA), purchased the cable connecting the morgue fridge to the power supply themselves, and space is limited.

“They (the Iraqi health ministry) have promised to provide us with shelves to increase the capacity,” said the doctor.

Until recently, the only place in the province authorized to issue death certificates was the department of forensic medicine in west Mosul, which remains under Islamic State control.

That meant the dead had to be driven hundreds of kilometers to the cities of Tikrit or Erbil and often got held up at checkpoints on the way, if not turned back.

To resolve the issue, the Iraqi government has now authorized the hospital in Qayyara to issue death certificates, except when the victim’s identity or cause of death are unclear.

In those cases, the body is transferred to a new mortuary on the eastern side of Mosul, which is under the control of Iraqi security forces.

There, an autopsy is conducted if necessary, and the body is buried in a numbered grave so it can be found in future should someone come searching.

“We wait for a period (before burying the body), depending how full the fridges are,” said Dr Modhar Alomary, who is in charge of the morgue, the sound of outgoing artillery in the background.

Alomary declined to say how many bodies he had received.

Patients arrive at the hospital in Qayyara, Iraq April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

BRINGING UP THE BODIES

It might seem that Alomary’s workload would decrease once the battle for Mosul is over, but he expects the opposite.

That is when the task will begin of uncovering the mass graves where Islamic State threw its opponents after executing them.

A sinkhole south of Mosul believed to be the largest site may contain as many as 4,000 bodies, according to Human Rights Watch.

One worker at the morgue knows the scale of Islamic State’s two and half year killing spree better than most. He was an employee at the morgue in Mosul when Islamic State overran the city in the summer of 2014 and kept working there until just over one month ago.

In that time, “huge numbers” of bodies passed through the morgue, he said, many of them civilians, former policeman and ex-soldiers killed by the militants. “Sometimes we got 20-25, 50 (bodies in a day).”

The militants, who assumed control of hospitals across Mosul and appointed an “Emir of Health”, did not allow the morgue workers to conduct autopsies on their victims.

As for Islamic State’s own dead, the morgue worker said he was forced to fabricate the cause of death on the certificates of Iraqi fighters slain in battle, such as “car accident”.

That, to him, was an indication the militants anticipated defeat and wanted to make life easier for the families of its Iraqi members after Islamic State.

Death certificates were not issued for foreign fighters because their only identity was a nom de guerre, he said.

During the battle for Mosul’s eastern half, the morgue worker said he had received the corpses of 72 militants in a single day, estimating a total of 2,000 had passed through in the three months it took Iraqi forces to rout them.

Iraqi forces are now struggling to dislodge Islamic State from a few remaining districts in the west of the city, and the morgue worker said comparatively few dead militants had been brought in up until the point he left: “The number of civilian casualties is greater,” he said.

Many civilians killed in Mosul have been buried in gardens by relatives who were not able to reach a graveyard during the fighting and now want to dig up their loved ones and give them a proper burial.

Two men came to ask Dr Alomary what they should do with the remains of several relatives who were among dozens of civilians killed in an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition on the western Mosul Jadida district last month.

“We buried them by the side of the road and want to bring them here,” one of the men said to the doctor, who advised him to wait for Iraqi forces to finish clearing the rest of the city.

The bodies must also be dug up to get an official death certificate, which will enable victims’ relatives to claim compensation from the government.

But unless the authorities keep watch, people could take advantage of the chaos to fake deaths — whether to escape justice, or simply start a new life.

(Editing by Anna Willard)

U.S. strike destroys bridge, restricts Islamic State in Mosul

Shi'ite fighters stand with their weapons on the top of a building in Ali Rash, southeast of Mosul, Iraq

By Saif Hameed and Stephanie Nebehay

BAGHDAD/GENEVA (Reuters) – U.S. forces backing an Iraqi army campaign against Islamic State in Mosul carried out an air strike on a bridge spanning the Tigris river, restricting militant movements between western and eastern parts of the city, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces are pushing deeper into east Mosul, the last major city controlled by the Sunni hard-line group in Iraq, while army and police units, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish fighters surround it to the west, south and north.

Militants have steadily retreated into Mosul from outlying areas. The army’s early advances have slowed as militants dig in, using the more than 1 million civilians inside the city as a shield, moving through tunnels, and hitting troops with suicide bombers, snipers and mortar fire.

Five bridges span the Tigris that runs through Mosul. They have all been mined and boobytrapped by militants who took over the city two years ago as they swept through northern Iraq and declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Despite planting the mines, Islamic State fighters have so far been able to continue using those bridges which have not yet been destroyed by air strikes.

Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said on Tuesday an air strike hit the number four bridge, the southernmost, in the past 48 hours.

“This effort impedes Daesh’s freedom of movement in Mosul. It inhibits their ability to resupply or reinforce their fighters throughout the city,” he said using an Arabic acronym for the militant group.

A month ago, a U.S. air strike destroyed the No. 2 bridge in the center of the city and two weeks later another strike took out the No. 5 bridge to the north.

The United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration expressed concern that the destruction of the bridges could obstruct the evacuation of civilians.

“That is a concern of IOM because this is going to leave hundreds of thousands without a quick way out of the combat,” spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva.

COMMANDERS CAPTURED

The battle for Mosul, launched five weeks ago, is turning into the largest military campaign in more than a decade of conflict in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi military estimates around 5,000 Islamic State fighters are in Mosul. A 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government forces, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite paramilitary units is surrounding the city.

Mosul’s capture would be a major step towards dismantling the caliphate, and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to have withdrawn to a remote area near the Syrian border, has told his fighters to stay and fight to the end.

Counter terrorism units and an army armored division are the only forces to have breached the city limits from the eastern side. Other army and federal police units have yet to enter the northern and the southern sides.

A Kurdish security source said on Tuesday four Islamic State commanders were captured in a U.S. special operation near Baaj, a town close to the Syrian border. Baghdadi was not among them. The coalition did not confirm the operation.

Islamic State said it launched an attack on the north-western front of Mosul, seizing a duty free zone and oil depots located a dozen kilometers from the city limits. The army did not confirm the claim.

Iranian-backed militias have captured the Tal Afar air base, west of Mosul, part of their campaign to choke off the route between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the caliphate Islamic State declared in 2014.

The number of people displaced by the fighting in and around Mosul has slightly decreased, an indication that some people have began returning home in places retaken by government forces, according to the IOM.

“68,112 displaced is actually a downtick from couple of days ago,” said Millman. It’s “worth noting because it indicates that some people are already starting to return to safe areas in the region.”

The number of registered displaced people was over 68,500 on Monday. The figure does not include the thousands of people rounded up in villages around Mosul and forced to accompany Islamic State fighters to cover their retreat towards the city.

An Iranian-backed Shi’ite group taking part in the offensive denied a Human Rights Watch report that it detained and beat 10 shepherds, including a boy, from a village near Mosul on November 3.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said the League of the Righteous, or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, also stole the village’s entire flock of sheep.

“These reports are completely wrong, they aim to stall the operation” against Islamic State, said Asa’ib’s military spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi.

The Iraqi government has not published an overall death toll for the offensive, whether among military or civilians. The warring sides claim to have killed thousands in enemy ranks.

(Writing by Patrick Markey and Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans)

U.N. rights boss says executions in Iran were ‘grave injustice’

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Al Hussein arrives for the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva

GENEVA (Reuters) – The hanging of up to 20 people in Iran this week followed serious doubts about the fairness of their trials and respect for due process, leading to a “grave injustice” being committed, the United Nations’ top human rights official said on Friday.

Iran executed up to 20 Kurdish Islamists on Tuesday who were suspected of attacks on security forces, drawing condemnation from rights groups which said the convictions may have been based on forced confessions.

They were convicted of killing two Sunni Muslim clerics, several police and wildlife guards, abducting a number of people and carrying out armed robbery and bombings in western Iran, state news agency IRNA said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the men had been executed for “purported terrorism-related offences” and that reports suggested most if not all were from a minority group – Sunnis from the Kurdish community.

“The application of overly broad and vague criminal charges, coupled with a disdain for the rights of the accused to due process and a fair trial have in these cases led to a grave injustice,” Zeid said in a statement.

Shahram Ahmadi, one of those hanged, was alleged to have been beaten and coerced into signing a blank piece of paper on which his false confession was recorded, Zeid said.

Iran is one of the world’s top executioners, international rights groups say. Human Rights Watch said this week that Iran had executed at least 230 people this year.

Hassan Afshar, a 19-year-old who was 17 when he was arrested and convicted of rape, was executed last month, Zeid said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is particularly abhorrent and I urge Iran to respect the strict prohibition under international human rights law against this practice,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)