A makeshift hospital after what local activists said was an airstrike carried out by government forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, near Damascus, Syria, in October. Photo: Muhammad Badra/EPA
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DAMASCUS – Russian and Syrian government forces have been targeting hospitals as a strategy of war in Syria’s conflict, according to a report released on Thursday.
The rights group Amnesty International said it had “compelling evidence” of at least six deliberate attacks on medical facilities in the Aleppo province over the past 12 weeks, which killed at least three civilians, including a medical worker, and injured 44 more.
Aleppo witnessed some of the country’s fiercest fighting in the build-up to the partial ceasefire that came into effect on Saturday.
The UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that the truce, the first countrywide cessation of hostilities in Syria’s five-year war, had shown clear signs of progress.
“The situation … on the ground could be summarised as fragile. Success is not guaranteed, but progress has been visible,” Mr de Mistura said in Geneva before a meeting of the UN-backed international task force that is overseeing the truce, co-chaired by Moscow and Washington.
“In general, the cessation has been holding,” he said, though “there are still a number of places where fighting has continued”, including in parts of Damascus and Homs.
Mr de Mistura also announced plans to resume peace negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition groups on March 9.
Those talks began last month but were suspended after Syrian government forces backed by Russian air strikes launched an offensive to retake Aleppo city, control of which is divided between rebel and government forces.
The Amnesty report on Thursday said the recent attacks on medical facilities aimed to pave the way for pro-government ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo province.
On December 25, several missiles struck Baghdad Hospital in Hreitan, a town north of Aleppo city, killing a medical worker, and injuring 10 staff and 20 patients, a doctor and another medical worker told Amnesty. It left the hospital in ruins.
Some of the last families remaining in Hreitan fled as pro-government forces advanced on the town in early February. “The air strikes destroyed the city’s infrastructure including hospitals so there are no more services for us to be able to survive,” a resident told Amnesty.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its Syria campaign. Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, also denies targeting civilians but has said that it is a “rule of thumb” in war that innocent civilians die.
The monitoring group Physicians for Human Rights has said 315 of the 346 on medical facilities that it has documented in the course of the five-year conflict were conducted by Syrian or Russian forces. A report by the group last year said the Syrian government “systematically violated” the principle of medical neutrality by targeting medical facilities and doctors, detaining patients, and arresting, torturing, and executing doctors. A total of 705 medical staff have been killed so far, it said.
One of the clearest signs that the current truce is largely holding has been a drastically lower civilian death toll.
Local sources reported that some 70 civilians were killed across Syrian in the first five days of the ceasefire.
The relative calm has also allowed the delivery of desperately-needed assistance to besieged areas where nearly half a million people are trapped.
Another four million people are living in hard-to-reach areas.
Jan Egeland, head of the task force on humanitarian assistance in Syria, said on Thursday he hoped the ceasefire would “lead to a big leap forward … in reaching many hundreds of thousands more people.”
In the past three weeks, 236 trucks had been sent out to 115,000 people in besieged areas, he said, adding that by the weekend, aid workers were hoping to have reached another three or four areas in Kfar Batna in the Eastern Ghouta region, which are home to another 20,000 people.
“Considering how it has been, we are obviously making great progress, but there is a lot left to be done,” he said after a meeting of the task force overseeing the delivery of aid.
However, Syria’s government and the opposition – and their respective backers – continued to trade accusations over ceasefire breaches on Thursday.
The head of the main opposition grouping, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, said the truce would be “on the verge of collapse” if world powers did not do more to stop violations.
Riad Hijab said the regime and its allies had committed more than 100 breaches over the past five days.
On the other hand, Russia said there were 14 ceasefire violations over the previous 24 hours that involved shelling of residential areas and Syrian government forces in the provinces of Damascus, Latakia, Hama and Deraa.