FILE PHOTO: A man rides a motorbike past damaged buildings in the rebel-held town of Nairab, Idlib region, Syria April 17, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)
Syrian and Russian planes have carried out deadly aerial strikes amounting to war crimes on schools, hospitals and markets in Idlib province, U.N. investigators said on Tuesday in a report that also condemned attacks by jihadist fighters.
They said that "indiscriminate bombardment" by pro-government forces, ahead of a March ceasefire brokered with Turkey, claimed hundreds of lives and forced nearly one million civilians to flee, which may amount to a crime against humanity.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria also accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group that controls part of northwest Syria, of firing artillery into civilian areas "with no apparent legitimate military objective".
Fighters from HTS, a group formerly known as Nusra Front, have tortured and executed detainees, it added.
"What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. panel, said in a statement.
The report, covering Nov. 2019 until June 2020, was based on overflight data and witness testimony.
It examines 52 "emblematic attacks" in northwest Syria, including 47 attributed to the Russian-backed Syrian government.
Russian warplanes were solely implicated in a deadly March 5 strike on a poultry farm near Marat Misrin that sheltered displaced people and in three strikes next to a hospital damaged in the rebel-held town of Ariha on Jan. 29, the report said. Russia denies involvement in the latter attack, it said.
The region is home to a mix of Islamist militant and opposition groups, many of which fled other parts of Syria as President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian backing, seized back territory from them.
"The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that pro-government forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes," it said.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, a panel member, said: "Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights...
"The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes."