By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - Air strikes targeting Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city of Mosul are killing civilians, although facts and casualty numbers are hard to verify, a U.N. spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
"We have been receiving quite a lot of reports of civilian casualties caused by air strikes," Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, told a regular news briefing in Geneva.
Although the reports were from Islamic State-held areas and may be distorted by propaganda, and U.N. sources on the ground are diminishing as people flee or are killed, Shamdasani said the reports the U.N. had received "do seem credible".
"It is clear that civilians are being killed in air strikes," she said.
In one case, air strikes targeted a local Islamic State leader in western Mosul on Jan. 14, but the attack caused the collapse of both the targeted house and the adjacent house, reportedly killing 19 people and wounding 11.
"This one we have been able to get some reasonable corroboration for. But we also understand that ISIL (Islamic State) had been gathering relatives of combatants in the houses and that would account in part for the high number of civilian casualties caused by this attack."
The U.N. has previously said Islamic State has used tens of thousands of men, women and children as "human shields" in Mosul.
Iraqi officials say government forces have taken complete control of the east of the city, which is divided by the Tigris river, 100 days after the start of their U.S.-backed campaign, and are preparing to push into the western side.
Shamdasani stopped short of saying there should be a blanket ban on air strikes on western Mosul, where the U.N. estimates 750,000 civilians are still holed up, but military commanders should take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties, including limiting the scope of the attack as much as possible.
"It needs to be weighed up whether the advantage that can be offered by the military attack outweighs the number of civilian casualties that are likely to be caused," Shamdasani said.
She added that, in the face of "flagrant" violations of the law by Islamic State, it was crucial that Iraqi government forces and their allies ensure scrupulous respect for international law and hold wrongdoers to account.
The U.N. was sharing its information to try to help military authorities reduce casualty numbers, she said.
Islamic State fighters have continued to kill civilians with shelling, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs and snipers, she said. There was no estimate of the numbers killed.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)