U.N. war crimes investigators said that a Russian plane was apparently behind an airstrike in November on a Syrian market that killed 84 people. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

UN probe: Russia behind deadly airstrike on Syrian market

GENEVA — U.N. war crimes investigators said Tuesday that a Russian plane was apparently behind an airstrike in November on a Syrian market that killed 84 people, an attack which could amount to a war crime.

The findings, reported by the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, were the first time the group has pinned responsibility for civilian deaths in Syria directly on Russia.

In the same report, the Commission of Inquiry said the U.S.-led coalition in the war against the Islamic State group failed to properly vet the target of a March 20, 2017 air raid that killed 150 civilians sheltering in a school in northern Syria.

“The international coalition should have known the nature of the target,” the report said, adding that the oversight had put the coalition in violation of humanitarian law. The coalition took responsibility for the strike, saying it had targeted 30 IS fighters it believed were hiding in the building.

“All parties share guilt for completely disregarding the rules of war,” said the commission’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, at a press conference introducing the report. He said parties were resorting to “increasingly cynical methods” to secure objectives in Syria’s complex civil war.

The report documented widespread abuses of international law, including leveraging aid in combination with siege warfare to force civilians “to surrender or starve.” It said pro-government forces had bombed hospitals and clinics in opposition-held territory in northwest Syria.

According to the report, “all available information” indicates that a Russian plane carried out the Nov. 13 airstrike that hit a market near houses and a police station run by Western-backed Syrian rebels in the town of Atarib, in the northern Idlib province.

At least 84 people were killed and some 150 were wounded in the attack.

The commission, which was created 6 1/2 years ago to document alleged human rights violations by any side in Syria’s war, says the plane that carried out the airstrike took off from the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, which is run by Russian forces.

Russia is a main backer of President Bashar Assad’s forces and has helped turn the tide of war in his favour with a campaign of airstrikes.

The Russian military denies accusations of killing civilians. It says its forces in Syria have only launched strikes on militant targets after verifying their location, and have never hit areas populated by civilians.

Tuesday’s report, prepared under a current mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, lays out the investigators’ findings during a six-month probe conducted between July 8 and Jan. 15.

“All information available indicates that a Russian fixed-wing aircraft that took off from Hemeimeem airbase conducted the strikes,” the report said. “Early warning observers monitored the take-off of a fixed-wing aircraft, whose pilots communicated in Russian, from Hemeimeem airbase at 1:37 p.m. and tracked the aircraft going south and then to the northeast all the way to Atarib where it arrived at 2:07 p.m.”

“No Syrian aircraft were observed in the area in the two hours preceding the airstrikes,” it added.

The report said the attack on the densely populated area, involving unguided weapons, “may amount to a war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death and injury to civilians.”

Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have previously linked Russia to alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Syria, such as bombing civilians in rebel-held eastern Aleppo in 2016.

The investigators also provided details of the ongoing Syrian government offensive in eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, which began on Feb. 18.

In an annex to the report, they said the siege of eastern Ghouta has been marked by “pervasive war crimes, including the use of prohibited weapons, attacks against civilian and protected objects, starvation as a method of warfare leading to severe acute malnutrition, and the routine denial of medical evacuations.”

The U.N. human rights office and other monitors estimate that hundreds of people have been killed during the assault on eastern Ghouta, where the Syrian government says it is making advances against rebel forces.

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