At least 544 civilians have been killed and more than 2,000 people wounded since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel-held bastion in northwestern Syria began two-and-a-half months ago, according to rights groups and rescuers.
Russian fighter jets joined the Syrian army on April 26 in the offensive against rebel-held Idlib and adjoining northern Hama provinces, in the biggest escalation in the war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel fighters since last summer.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various United Nations agencies, said on Saturday that 130 children were among the 544 civilians killed in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army. Another 2,117 people were wounded.
“The Russian military and its Syrian ally are deliberately targeting civilians with a record number of medical facilities bombed,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters news agency.
Last month, US-based Human Rights Watch said the Russian-Syrian joint military operation had used cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in the attacks, along with large air-dropped explosive weapons, based on reports by first responders and witnesses.
The Syrian army and its ally Russia denied the allegations. Moscow says its forces and the Syrian army are fending off attacks by al-Qaeda fighters whom they say hit populated, government-held areas. It also accuses rebels of breaching a ceasefire deal agreed last year between Turkey and Russia.
Residents and rescuers say the campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins. According to the UN, at least 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for the safety of areas closer to the border with Turkey.
“Whole villages and towns have been emptied,” Ahmad al Sheikho, spokesman for the Civil Defence, or White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria.
He added that it was the most destructive campaign against Idlib province since it completely fell to the opposition in mid-2015.
On Friday, 15 people, including children, were killed in the village of Mhambil in western Idlib province after Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a civilian quarter, the civil defence group and witnesses said.
It came a day after aid groups said an aerial raid on Kafr Nabl hospital made it the 30th facility to be bombed during the campaign, leaving hundreds of thousands with no medical access.
“To have these medical facilities bombed and put out of service in less than two months is no accident. Let’s call this by what it is, a war crime,” Khaula Sawah, vice president of the United States-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, which provides aid in the northwest, said in a statement.
Last month, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock asked Russia to explain how it used data on the location of Syrian hospitals and clinics following a string of attacks on health facilities.
The under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs told the Security Council he was “not sure” hospitals that share coordinates of their location under a UN de-confliction system will be protected.
More than 23 hospitals have been hit by attacks since the offensive on Idlib began in late April, according to the UN.
The heads of 11 major global humanitarian organisations warned at the end of June that Idlib – home to three million civilians, including one million children – stood at the brink of disaster.
“Too many have died already” and “even wars have laws” they declared, in the face of multiple attacks by government forces and their allies on hospitals, schools and markets”, the UN-endorsed statement said.