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Russia and Syria in the Spotlight for Latest Idlib Medic Deaths

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said two medical workers were killed in an attack Wednesday at an ambulance centre in Ma’aret Hurmeh, a town in Idlib province. Courtesy: Syrian American Medical Society

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 16 2019 (IPS) - Medical aid groups have again blasted Russian and Syrian government forces this week for an ever-growing death toll among doctors, paramedics and other health workers in military strikes in northwestern Syria.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said two medical workers were killed in an attack Wednesday at an ambulance centre in Ma’aret Hurmeh, a town in Idlib province, which has been gripped by fighting in recent weeks.

Paramedic Mohamad Hussni Mishnen, 29, and ambulance driver Fadi Alomar, 34, died in a series of six airstrikes that levelled the facility, SAMS said. A rescuer also perished in a “double tap” hit on the centre as he tried to pull Mishnen and Alomar from the rubble.

Several aid groups and the United Nations have warned of repeated strikes on Idlib’s hospitals as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, retake the last rebel bastion in the country’s eight-year civil war. 

Mufaddal Hamadeh, president of SAMS, said in a statement he was “saddened and disturbed by this terrible incident”. He paid tribute to the medics and said those responsible for such “blatant crimes” should be held accountable.

Another group, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), has received reports of 46 attacks on  health centres since Syrian government and Russian forces launched an offensive on Idlib on April 29. The group has verified 16 of them.

“PHR’s rigorous research since the conflict began reveals that Syrian government and/or Russian government forces have committed approximately 91 percent of the attacks on health facilities in Syria,” said the group’s policy director Susannah Sirkin.

“The fact that these courageous professionals in Idlib were killed while merely doing their jobs should compel the U.N. and all parties to act now to stop the relentless bombing of civilians.”

Last month, after two-thirds of U.N. Security Council diplomats issued a protest note, U.N. secretary-general António Guterres launched an inquiry into attacks on civilian infrastructure including hospitals, clinics and schools.

The so-called Board of Inquiry will probe whether GPS coordinates of hospitals and clinics that the U.N. provides to Russia, the U.S. and Turkey to ensure the hospitals’ protection were used instead to target them.

Guterres “must conduct a rapid, public, and transparent investigation into attacks on health in the face of the deconfliction agreements”, while Security Council members “must ensure that those responsible for these unthinkable crimes are held accountable,” added Sirkin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Moscow, whose airpower has been critical to Damascus’ military gains in recent years, say they are fighting terrorists and deny targeting civilians, schools or hospitals, which can constitute war crimes.

Replying to a question from IPS, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s envoy to the U.N., said he was “disappointed” by the U.N.’s decision to launch the probe but did not commit to cooperating with investigators.

“If we were sure that this board will really try to establish the truth, then I can’t exclude this,” Polyanskiy told reporters.

“But there are a lot of doubts about this. These countries that were pushing for the establishment of this board … are not seeking to find the truth about what’s happened, they seek another tool to pressure Russia, to pressure Syria, and to just distort the actions that we take there.”

Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja’afari has said that northwest Syria’s healthcare centres were used by “terrorist groups” rather than doctors.

According to the U.N., more than 450 people have been killed in the Idlib offensive and hundreds of thousands more displaced by fighting. Idlib’s population is about three million, most of whom have fled from other parts of war-torn Syria.

Idlib and nearby parts of the northwest were covered by a “de-escalation” deal to staunch the conflict that was struck in September by Russia and Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in the area. 

But the deal was never fully implemented after fighters refused to withdraw from a planned buffer zone. Fighting has ratcheted up again in recent weeks, sending waves of refugees spilling from conflict hotspots.

President Assad is seeking to claw back control of Syria after peaceful protests in 2011 spiralled into a brutal civil war that saw him lose much of the country to armed religious extremists and other rebels.

More than 400,000 people have died across Syria since 2011, according to World Bank figures, and almost 12 million others have been forced to flee from their homes because of the fighting, both within Syria and abroad.

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