Middle East

Regime shelling deliberately targeting bakeries, hospitals: HRW

An HRW researcher interviews witnesses about an air-dropped bomb that struck near the bakery in Mari, northern Aleppo, in 2012.

BEIRUT: Government forces are deliberately targeting civilians in north Syria with warplanes striking bakeries and hospitals, according to a Human Rights Watch report set to be released Thursday.

The 75-page report documents 59 unlawful attacks in the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia over a three-month period last year, including attacks that failed to recognize the distinction between civilians and combatants, and a HRW official told The Daily Star Wednesday that such attacks continue to proliferate.

“Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians” includes information on eight airstrikes on four Aleppo bakeries.

On Aug. 21, 2012, 23 people were killed when two bombs were dropped near the Aqyoul bakery in the Bab al-Hadid neighborhood of Aleppo city.

Qais, a 44-year-old tailor who was working as a volunteer distributing bread when one attack occurred, told Human Rights Watch, “The bomb hit the corner of the street, and the shrapnel flew straight into the line. I saw one man on the ground without his leg, another without an arm, then a 16-year-old boy whom I knew, Rafat Makik Halak, without a head ... One of my cousins, Ahmad lost his arm and leg, and died afterward.”

All witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said there were no rebel Free Syrian Army fighters in the immediate area surrounding the bakery, with the exception of a couple of men “responsible for maintaining order in the bread line.”

Such failure to isolate fighters from ordinary Syrians represents a clear violation of international law, HRW says.

The airstrikes have also had a direct impact on people’s daily routine in northern Syria, says Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Many bakeries have either been shut completely or people distribute bread on bikes instead because they are worried about assembling in one area.”

Attacks on a similar scale were documented by HRW in seven other bread queues across Aleppo during the three-month period.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group, with greater acess than HRW, has said that Syrian forces attacked 78 bakeries across the country between June 2011 and December 2012.

“Death from the Skies” also examines the indiscriminate targeting of hospitals in Aleppo and Latakia.

Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo was struck at least eight times in the course of four months, “eventually destroying a significant part of the hospital building,” the report says.

During one such attack a doctor told researchers: “We had just finished surgery and moved to the second floor when the rockets hit. If it had hit just minutes before, we would have all been dead.”

Although the report places the blame for the airstrikes firmly with the regime forces, rebel groups are not completely absolved from responsibility, HRW says.

In the case of Dar al-Shifa, “the presence of opposition fighters in or in the immediate vicinity of the hospital endangered the hospital. But this did not relieve the government of its responsibility not to attack a hospital ... Even if the hospital was being used for military purposes at the time it wase hit, which is not evident, the attacks were disproportionate,” the report notes.

Similar attacks on a makeshift hospital in Salma town in Latakia eventually forced the surgery to relocate. Rebels were stationed just outside the town and sometimes passed through the hospital, but their base was never hit.

“For large parts of Syria that may otherwise be free of fighting,” Houry says, “air warfare has created a climate of terror ... You can be living in a village that is tens of kilometers away from the front line and suddenly out of nowhere it can come under attack.”

Due to numerous restrictions imposed by Bashar Assad’s government, HRW researchers were only able to access Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia provinces. Confined to governorates where rebels predominate, the report gives a skewed picture of the extent of aerial violence across the country.

Houry admitted to The Daily Star that access posed a huge problem while compiling the report.

“The main challenge is that the Syrian government didn’t allow us in ... We haven’t been able to reach the central areas around Homs, around Damascus and Deir al-Zor, where we know there have also been a lot of airstrikes.”

To this end, “Death from the Skies” identifies 152 residents killed by aerial attacks during the investigations, but it also cites the Violations Documentation Center Committees’ total 4,472 killed by warplanes between July 2012 and March 2013. VDCC is a Syrian monitoring group that works with a network of opposition activists across the country.

However, Houry told The Daily Star that the group was continuing to document airstrikes and that six recent attacks had taken place in Aleppo, where “once again there are no military targets in close proximity. The airstrikes are ongoing and the number of dead is still rising.”

“Villages and towns in opposition-held areas are unable to function anything like normally because of this constant fear of death from the skies. Airstrikes are quite literally terrorizing entire parts of the country.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2013, on page 8.

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