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Amnesty says Russian strikes on Syria may amount to war crimes

Syrians walk on debris of collapsed buildings after the war-crafts belonging to the Russian army carried out airstrikes on the opposition-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria on December 11, 2015.
Ibrahim Ebu Leys | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Syrians walk on debris of collapsed buildings after the war-crafts belonging to the Russian army carried out airstrikes on the opposition-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria on December 11, 2015.

Amnesty International says Russian air strikes in Syria may amount to war crimes after gathering reports on hundreds of civilians killed in their homes, medical facilities and other public spaces.

The UK-based human rights organisation said it conducted remote research on 25 attacks between September and November 2015, with at least 200 civilians killed.

Russia, which has entered Syria's four-year civil war on the side of its long-time ally, President Bashar al-Assad, denied its forces had targeted civilians in opposition-held areas, saying that they were focused on terrorist targets.

But Syrian residents and activists in areas held by the rebels fighting Mr Assad have for weeks been sending reports and videos of civilian targets that they claim were hit by Russia.

These have included strikes on an area where humanitarian aid convoys gather in Syria's northern border town of Azaz, as well as the bombing of a vegetable market in Ariha in northern Idlib province, which killed more than 35 people.

"Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme. "Such attacks may amount to war crimes."

It is almost impossible, however, to definitively determine the source of strikes as international monitoring groups have little access because of increasing levels of violence. Amnesty's report was researched remotely using video clips, photographs and interviews with witnesses and human rights activists in Syria.

Russia's ministry of defence did not respond to an FT request for comment on Amnesty's findings on Tuesday night.

Activists working for medical aid groups have warned that recent strikes on facilities also affect their ability to save lives in the future.

Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) last week said intensified bombings on aide routes and hospitals in rebel-held northern Syria may force it to halt some of its work in the country, where more than 250,000 have died and half the population has been displaced. It did not, however, name any particular party as responsible.

"With other health posts in the area closing in recent months because of the violence, the number of patients arriving at our hospitals continues to grow. Last weekend we had to reduce activities in our hospital," said Carlos Francisco, co-ordinator of MSF projects in northern Syria. "The next step will be to close a hospital assisting some 50,000 people."

Monitoring groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have documented cases of both coalition and Russian strikes killing civilians but Rami Abdelrahman, the group's head, said that civilian casualties from Russian strikes by far outnumbered coalition attacks.

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Amnesty said that it had found evidence that Moscow used unguided missiles in densely populated areas as well as cluster bombs, a munition widely condemned by international rights groups for their indiscriminate nature.

It specifically pointed to use of SPBE series cluster munitions in the first week of October, noting that weapons experts do not believe Mr Assad's armed forces have the capabilities to deploy them.

One of the suspected cases of cluster bombings, it said, hit the Nuqeyr camp for refugees in Syria's northern Idlib province.

Amnesty also looked into the case of the Omar Bin al-Khattab mosque in the northern city of Jisr al-Shughur. Syrian opposition activists accused Russia of hitting it and killing one young man and wounding several others, including three women and a child.

Russia said that the reports were a hoax, and presented satellite images showing the mosque intact.

But the rights group said that the images showed a different mosque, not the one targeted. "Such conduct does not cultivate confidence in their willingness to investigate reported violations in good faith," Amnesty's Mr Luther said.

"Russia's ministry of defence must be more transparent and disclose targets of their attacks in order to facilitate assessment of whether they are complying with their obligations under international humanitarian law."