Russia denies its warplanes hit MSF hospital in Syria
Bassem Mroue and Lynn Berry, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, February 16, 2016 7:05AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 16, 2016 11:46AM EST
BEIRUT -- Russia on Tuesday denied its warplanes carried out strikes on a Syrian hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least nine people, as Syrian government forces and a Kurdish-led coalition advanced amid heavy fighting in the country's north.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said Russian warplanes targeted the hospital in Idlib province on Monday. The makeshift clinic was supported by the international aid group, also known by its French acronym MSF. France said that such attacks "could constitute war crimes."
But the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the allegations, saying there was no proof.
"We categorically reject such claims, even more so because each time those who make such claims prove unable somehow to corroborate their unsubstantiated accusations," Dmitry Peskov said.
In a conference call with journalists, he said those making allegations should do as Moscow does and rely on the "primary source" -- official announcements from the Syrian government.
When pressed, he said Damascus had made announcements about who could have been behind the bombing. He said Syria's ambassador to Russia said the hospital was destroyed by the U.S. military. A U.S.-led coalition is carrying out strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.
MSF said the hospital in the town of Maaret al-Numan was hit four times in attacks that were minutes apart. The attack left the local population of around 40,000 without access to medical services, said MSF mission chief Massimiliano Rebaudengo.
In the neighbouring Aleppo province, a missile struck a children's hospital in the town of Azaz, killing five people, including three children and a pregnant woman, according to the Observatory. A third air raid hit a school in a nearby village, killing seven and wounding others.
Abdulrahman Al-Hassan, chief liaison officer at the Syrian Civil Defence, a group of first responders known as the "White Helmets," said parts of a missile that landed near the hospital had Russian letters on them and that the type of missile had not been seen in the area prior to Russia's military intervention, which began Set. 30.
The airstrikes came just days after Russia and other world powers agreed to bring about a pause in fighting that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the revival of Syrian peace talks. The projected truce agreed on Friday in Munich was to begin in a week, but is still very much in doubt, largely because of the heavy fighting in Aleppo.
In recent weeks Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes have been advancing on Western-backed rebels and other insurgents, hoping to seal off rebel-held parts of Aleppo, formerly Syria's largest city. Syria's state news agency SANA and the Observatory said Tuesday that government forces took the villages of Ahras and Misqan.
U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, which until now have mainly battled the Islamic State group and remained largely neutral in the civil war, have been advancing in the same region, battling Syrian rebels and other insurgents in a bid to expand a nearby enclave.
The Syria Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab groups, have captured the major town of Tel Rifaat, one of the largest militant strongholds in the province, as well as the village of Kfar Naseh to the south. Parts of the coalition oppose President Bashar Assad but have also fought against other rebels and the Western-backed opposition.
Ahmad al-Omar, a member of the SDF, and the Observatory said SDF fighters also captured the village of Sheikh Issa and were approaching the rebel stronghold of Marea.
They said dignitaries from northern Aleppo are trying to negotiate an agreement whereby the insurgents would surrender Marea in exchange for a safe corridor to the town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey.
The SDF is also advancing in Aleppo itself, according to opposition activists, who say Syrian insurgents repelled an SDF assault on two neighbourhoods.
"They were trying to besiege (rebel-held parts) of the city of Aleppo but were forced out," activist Bahaa al-Halaby said via Skype. The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, corroborated his account.
Another SDF official, Ahmad Hiso, said Turkish troops shelled northern Syria on Tuesday, adding that since the shelling began three days ago, six civilians have been killed, including a woman and a child.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara. A Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul that "each time there is fire from Syria, we respond."
He added that Turkey has no plans to unilaterally send ground troops into Syria, but that Ankara has raised the issue in international meetings, including with the United States. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Also Tuesday, government forces and allied gunmen captured a power station in eastern Aleppo from the IS group, which had used it as a jail. The Observatory said the pro-government forces captured the station and nearby villages with the help of Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
In Damascus, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura met Tuesday with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
"We discussed the priority issue for us at the moment, which is the issue of humanitarian access to besieged areas," de Mistura said.
"It is clear, it is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the U.N. to bring humanitarian aid," de Mistura said.
"Tomorrow we test this, and we will be able to talk more about it," he told reporters, without elaborating.
The U.N. envoy arrived in the Syrian capital Monday for discussions on aid deliveries and resuming peace talks in Geneva.
SANA quoted al-Moallem as saying that they talked about the efforts exerted by Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to its citizens, "particularly to the areas controlled by terrorist groups."
The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, a pro-Syrian government outlet, reported that the government has agreed to allow aid into the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Moadamiyeh.
Indirect peace talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition collapsed earlier this month in Geneva after just two days, largely because of the government offensive in Aleppo.
Berry reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.