UN aid chief: Syria, Russia attacks on civilians 'deliberate'

Some hospitals have stopped sharing coordinates because it 'paints a target on their back', UN's Mark Lowcock says.

    Damage at a hospital after an airstrike in Deir al-Sharqi village in Idlib province, Syria  [File: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]
    Damage at a hospital after an airstrike in Deir al-Sharqi village in Idlib province, Syria [File: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

    United Nations officials alleged that Syria's and Russia's forces may be deliberately targeting hospitals and schools in the rebel-held northwest of Syria as a tactic aimed at "terrorising" civilians.

    Both Syria and Russia denied the accusations on Tuesday.

    UN aid chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council since late April the World Health Organization had confirmed 26 incidents affecting healthcare facilities in the Idlib region.

    Civilian facilities often provide their exact coordinates to military officials involved in conflict zones to help protect them from inadvertent artillery or air strikes.

    Lowcock said some hospitals in northwestern Syria were now not sharing their locations with warring parties because it "paints a target on their back".

    "Hitting a facility whose coordinates were shared as part of the UN's deconfliction system is simply intolerable," said Lowcock. "A number of partners  ... have drawn the conclusion that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic aimed at terrorising people."

    He said the United Nations was reconsidering its de-confliction system and would inform the UN Security Council next week of its conclusions.

    Lowcock told the Security Council since Syrian troops began pushing into Idlib on April 30 an estimated 330,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and more than 230 civilians have died.

    'Decisively reject'

    Russia and Syria questioned the sources of the UN information on the attacks on civilian infrastructure.

    "We decisively reject any accusation of indiscriminate strikes. We're not carrying out attacks on civilians," Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said.

    Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari added: "Syrians and allies do not target schools or hospitals."

    But other ambassadors suggested the practice was indeed taking place.

    "Many of those in the civilian infrastructure have stopped giving coordinates because they are concerned giving the coordinate means maybe those people who shouldn't get the coordinates receive them and use them," said the German Ambassador to the UN Christoph Heusgen.

    Marc Pecsteen, Belgian's ambassador to the UN, also supported the accusations.

    "There is no justification whatsoever [for attacks on civilian facilities]. Even in the fight against terrorism, there is no reason to target a school or a hospital," said Pecsteen.

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    Crumbling 'de-escalation'

    Idlib is the last remaining bastion of anti-government rebels after eight bloody years of civil war.

    Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, and Turkey, long a backer of rebel groups, cosponsored the de-escalation pact for the area that has been in place since last year.

    But the deal has faltered in recent months, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee.

    "I am deeply concerned about the escalation of the fighting in Idlib, and the situation is especially dangerous given the involvement of an increased number of actors," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters, appealing to Russia and Turkey "to stabilise the situation without delay".

    "Let me underscore, even in the fight against terrorism, there needs to be full compliance with international human rights and international law," he added.

    UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council for Syria's close ally Russia, the presence in Idlib of the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) "is not tolerable", and "for Turkey, time is required to effectively isolate and address HTS' most hardline fighters".

    'Not a humanitarian catastrophe'

    Nebenzia said the de-escalation deal with Turkey " was being fully implemented" telling Security Council members it "doesn't ban but rather encourages the fight against terrorism".

    He added all military activities were in response "to provocations from terrorists" saying HTS controls 99 percent of the Idlib de-escalation zone.

    "We think that the issue is not that it's a humanitarian catastrophe," Nebenzia said.

    "It's clear that the issue is the desire to keep the territories that are not under Damascus' control for as long as possible regardless of who prevails in them."

    Syria's war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

    The conflict has become a geopolitical battleground with Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and several Gulf nations all involved and backing various forces. 

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies