Nearly 50 civilians killed in missile attacks on medical facilities and schools in Syria

A hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders near Maaret Numan, in Syria's northern Idlib province, lies in ruins after being hit by airstrikes that activists say were carried out by Russian warplanes.

A hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders near Maaret Numan, in Syria’s northern Idlib province, lies in ruins after being hit by airstrikes that activists say were carried out by Russian warplanes.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Pro-government forces fought fierce battles against rebels in northern Syria on Monday and United Nations officials said nearly 50 civilians were killed in missile attacks on at least five medical facilities and two schools in the region.

The attacks “cast a shadow on commitments” made by world leaders meeting in Munich, Germany, last week to pursue what was described as “a cessation of hostilities” in Syria, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group with a network of activists in Syria, said the attacks included warplanes belonging to Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, striking a hospital in the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province.


The medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported at least seven people killed and eight missing and presumed dead in the strike.

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“The destruction on the ... facility appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure,” said the group’s head of mission, Massimiliano Rebaudengo, in a press release. “The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict.”

Opposition activists also reported that four other medical facilities and two schools were hit in airstrikes on Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby, in a statement released Monday, also condemned the strikes on civilian targets.

“That the Assad regime and its supporters would continue these attacks, without cause and without sufficient regard for international obligations to safeguard innocent lives, flies in the face of the unanimous calls by the ISSG [International Syria Support Group] including in Munich, to avoid attacks on civilians and casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people,” the statement said.


Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, declared that it had pushed out the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front from the city of Tal Rifaat, according to a statement released on the group’s official Twitter account Monday.

The city, a vital rebel bastion since early 2012 located approximately 8 miles south of the town of Azaz and 11 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border, lies on the main highway linking opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo city and the Turkish border.

The observatory said the Kurdish-dominated militia had wrested control of major parts of Tal Rifaat. Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman, in a phone interview Monday, said that Turkish military units were shelling the town to force the militia to withdraw from the area.

The Kurdish onslaught comes as Syrian pro-government forces backed by hundreds of airstrikes by Russian warplanes have made gains in rebel-held areas of Aleppo province, and are now poised to secure the country’s 500-mile border with Turkey.

Last September, Russia launched an airstrike campaign that it said targeted the Islamic State but which critics insist has focused on opposition factions arrayed against Assad.

Turkey, a major opposition sponsor, has facilitated the entry of militants and materiel into Syria, transforming the Turkish side of the border into staging area for rebel attacks on Syrian soil.


The fighting has displaced an estimated 50,000 Syrians who are now stranded in tent encampments in and around Azaz.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the Kurdish group of being “an open instrument of Russia,” and insisted Ankara would take military measures to stop its expansion.

However, Ahmad Omar, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said his group was not coordinating with Russia to provide air cover for the Kurdish militia’s advance.

“Russian strikes bomb everyone that are in the way of the regime’s forces,” Omar said in a phone interview Monday. “We are also against the regime and anyone who claims we coordinate with them and Russia is lying.”

The International Syria Support Group is a 17-nation organization working to end the almost five-year war in Syria, which has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced millions. It has also spurred a refugee crisis on Europe’s shores, which has raised sharp divisions between European Union member states. Last week, ISSG members, including Russia and Iran, met in Munich and agreed to halt attacks on civilians within one week.

In a speech Monday, however, Assad said his forces would not stop fighting.

“For us, fighting terror is a priority that will stop neither now nor in the future,” Assad said in a speech to the Attorneys Union in the Syrian capital, Damascus.


The Syrian government refers to all opposition fighters as “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”

“What we care about in all these matters is one thing: That [decision-making in state affairs] returns to the Syrian people, in addition to Syrian sovereignty and the unity of the land.”

Bulos is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Kamiran Saadoun in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.


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