Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Russia implicated by top UN official over Syria hospital attacks

Mark Lowcock said he was unconvinced about measures to protect civilians

A top UN official on Tuesday said he feared geographical co-ordinates supplied to protect medical centres in north-west Syria were being used by President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and its Russian backers in air strikes.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said there had been repeated pleas to the Syrian government and Moscow to “make this stop”.

“It has not stopped or even slowed,” he told the UN Security Council, more than a month after he first said civilian buildings including schools and hospitals were being bombed in the government offensive to reclaim Idlib province, the country’s last rebel holdout.

The Maarat National Hospital in Maarat Al Numan, in south-west Idlib, is one centre considered vulnerable to such an attack after increased fighting.

An ambulance taking a wounded woman to the hospital was hit in an air strike on June 20, killing her and three medical workers, and seriously injuring two paramedics, Mr Lowcock said.

The Syrian offensive is centred on pushing Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a coalition of rebels designated by the UN as a terrorist group, from Idlib.

Co-ordinates of civic buildings such as hospitals and schools are supplied to Russia, and through it to the Syrian government, ostensibly so the structures can be avoided during air strikes and other military action.

They are also provided to the US and other members of international coalition forces.

Mr Lowcock said the system remained in force but he had written to Russia seeking an explanation about how it was using the co-ordinates.

“I want to make clear that this does not mean that it is our judgment that the system in Idlib is, in practice, protecting medical facilities. I am not sure that it is,” he said.

“The critical question is what those receiving information on the location of medical facilities are doing with it.”

The US ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, said Russia had a history in Syria of breaking its agreements for political gain.

“It is clear who is in control of the air space,” Mr Cohen said. “The Russian Federation can and must do better, but its track record on deconfliction and reconciliation is not good.”

Russia took the unusual step of presenting one of its generals, speaking by video link from Damascus, to explain its position to the council.

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Read more: US accuses Assad of using 'starve or surrender' tactics in Syria’s Idlib

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The decision was criticised by France, Germany and Britain, who said Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict was a reason to doubt his testimony.

Maj Gen Alexei Bakin, head of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation , said its efforts were mostly focused on helping Syrian refugees to return.

Since the start of this year 220,000 had gone home, Gen Bakin said. He said 30,000 of them had been internally displaced and the rest had fled abroad.

But artillery and mortar attacks from Hayat Tahrir meant that defensive military action was necessary, he said.

Gen Bakin denied that the response was indiscriminate and he accused western countries of being fooled by rebel propaganda.

He said Russia was abiding by agreements it had signed but he did not give any details about how supplied co-ordinates were being used.

Britain’s permanent representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, was unconvinced by Gen Bakin’s remarks.

“We believe it is important for the council to hear from all sides who are involved in a conflict,” Ms Pierce said.

“We very strongly support freedom of speech but we expect it to be truthful speech.”

Updated: June 26, 2019 10:33 PM

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