Russia rejects war crime claims over bombing of Syria health facilities


Kremlin denies ‘unfounded accusations’ over airstrikes as Turkey accuses Moscow of ‘behaving like a terrorist organisation’

Russia has strongly rejected accusations of war crimes after dozens of people were killed in strikes on medical facilities and schools in rebel-controlled areas of Syria on Monday.

“We categorically do not accept such statements, the more so as every time those making these statements are unable to prove their unfounded accusations in any way,” a spokesman for Vladimir Putin said.

France, Turkey and western diplomats have all said the strikes on two locations by forces supporting Bashar al-Assad amount to war crimes.

Turkey’s foreign ministry accused Russia of carrying out an “obvious war crime” and warned that bigger and more serious consequences would be inevitable if Russia did not immediately end such attacks.

Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said: “If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organisation and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response.”

France was less forthright in its language. The foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the attacks “could constitute war crimes”, adding: “Attacks against health facilities in Syria by the regime or its supporters are unacceptable and must stop immediately.”

The violence risks drawing Turkey further into the conflict. Alarmed by Kurdish expansion near its border, Ankara on Tuesday called on its coalition partners, including the US, to take part in a joint ground operation in Syria to try to end the war.

“Turkey is not going to have a unilateral ground operation,” official said. “We are asking coalition partners that there should be a ground operation. We are discussing this with allies.”

“We want a ground operation. If there is a consensus, Turkey will take part. Without a ground operation, it is impossible to stop this war.”

Monday’s strikes marked the latest in a series of attacks on medical facilities and workers, which number 14 so far this year. They have dashed hopes that an agreement in Munich about a “cessation of hostilities” could be implemented this week, and underlined Assad’s warning that implementing a truce would prove difficult.

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Médecins Sans Frontières said seven people were killed when a facility it supports in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib province, was hit four times in two separate raids. Mego Terzian, MSF’s France president, said he thought that either Russia or Syrian government forces were responsible.

The hospital, which has 54 staff and 30 beds, is financed by the medical charity, which also supplies medicine and equipment.

The UK’s former development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said there was no doubt Russia was to blame. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “It is certainly a war crime. The Russian airforce have now hit 30 hospitals in Syria, of which only one is in an Isil [Islamic State] area. MSF is careful to make clear where their people are on the ground to all the combatants. Everyone knew this is an MSF hospital and undoubtedly this is a breach of international law and the Russians are guilty of that.”

Mitchell acknowledged that there was nothing the international community could do to stop Russia’s airstrikes, but he insisted there would be consequences.

“They can be held to account in the future. The United Nations was set up to combat this sort of international anarchy. Russia is a fundamental part as a member of the permanent five [of the security council]. There are many other countries in the UN who will be horrified by these Russian actions against innocent civilians. For Russia’s reputation in the future, for Russia’s role in the UN, this has a very significant affect.”

Chris Hill, former US ambassador in the Middle East, said: “Russians have a history of not being very accurate. What is particularly worrisome here is that wasn’t just one hospital; it looks like it was a deliberate effort to deal with their perception of how to win the war so I would like to see an ulterior explanation of this but I must say fingers are pointing pretty directly at the Russian air force right now.”

Asked if it was a war crime, Hill said: “If there was a deliberate effort to target hospitals where wounded warriors are convalescing, where there were doctors and nurses, I think you could certainly make the case for it being a war crime.”

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the raids violated international law and “cast a shadow” over efforts to end Syria’s five-year civil war.

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