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U.N. to investigate accusations that Russia, Syria are deliberately targeting hospitals

A building damaged by regime airstrikes last month in Maaret al-Numan, Syria. (Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations has ordered an investigation into a surge of Russian and Syrian airstrikes against hospitals and clinics in northwestern Syria amid growing concerns that Russia is using U.N.-supplied data to deliberately target medical facilities.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres authorized the inquiry Thursday after pressure from U.N. Security Council members and human rights groups to do more to establish why health facilities and other civilian infrastructure such as schools and rescue services are being hit so frequently in the recent fighting.

The investigation comes after a grim assessment of the civilian toll was delivered to the Security Council on Tuesday by U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock.

Since the Syrian government launched an offensive in April to reclaim control of the northwestern Idlib province and a portion of Hama province, more than 450 civilians have been killed, hundreds more have been wounded and 440,000 have been forced to flee their homes, Lowcock said.

Most of the casualties have been caused by Russian and Syrian airstrikes, which have pummeled towns and villages far from the front lines. Lowcock cited satellite imagery that suggests 17 villages have been destroyed in airstrikes as part of what he called a “scorched earth” policy by the ­Syrian government.

He also noted the high frequency of attacks on civilian infrastructure, despite a process known as “deconfliction” under which the United Nations supplies the coordinates of hospitals, schools, bakeries and other civilian infrastructure to Russia, Turkey and the United States, with the goal of preventing hits on them. Russian and Syrian warplanes are the only ones active in the skies over Idlib.

At a minimum, Lowcock said, the deconfliction process “is not proving effective” to avert attacks on civilian infrastructure. It is also possible, he said, that the coordinates are being used to deliberately target facilities.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, there have been 46 reported attacks on medical facilities since the Syrian government launched an offensive in April, backed by Russian warplanes, to regain control of the last areas still controlled by the opposition.

Of those, 16 have been verified by the group and 14 were against facilities that the United Nations had identified to Russia as hospitals, according to testimony delivered to the Security Council on Tuesday by Susannah Sirkin, director of policy with Physicians for Human Rights. She reminded the council that targeting medical facilities is considered a war crime under international law.

Russia has denied that it is using any of the information it receives to target hospitals, but some international aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders have already stopped sharing the coordinates of their operations with the United Nations.

In an appeal last week to the international community to do more to prevent the bloodshed in Syria, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said she did not believe the amount of damage being inflicted on hospitals, as well as schools, bakeries and other civilian infrastructure, was a coincidence.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

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