Having fled bombing, Syrian children learn to read in tent schools

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian teacher Ahmad al Hilal listens to his young pupils sitting on a mat reciting the Arabic alphabet in a makeshift school in a tent on the outskirts of a sprawling refugee camp city along the Turkish border.

Many ran for their lives with their mothers under heavy aerial bombing by Syrian and Russian jets that paralyzed day-to-day life and damaged dozens of schools and hospitals.

Now, already enduring the difficult winter conditions in the camp, where many tents get flooded, the children huddle on the floor, learning how to read with scraps of paper and pencils.

“These kids suffer from illiteracy. They don’t read or write. They have no one to help them,” said Hilal, who teaches over 140 young Syrians in three tents scattered across several large overcrowded camps on the outskirts of the border town of Azaz.

Women and children form a majority of more than 350,000 people who have fled the renewed assault since December that has pushed deeper into the Syria’s opposition-run bastion in the northwest, according to the United Nations.

“We came here as refugees, there are no more schools because of the air strikes, so we haven’t been going to school but we’re studying in the camp here,” said 14-year-old pupil Khaled, who did not give a family name.

Hilal was himself uprooted from his town of Abu Dahur in Idlib province after the army, backed by pro-Iranian militias seized it.

“We bought some books and parts of the Koran and now teach them inside the camp,” said Hilal, 48, who was a teacher before the conflict that began almost nine years ago.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has warned that the war will leave a generation who have never enrolled in school, having a devastating toll on education, with 7,000 schools destroyed and about 2 million children out of class.

At a nearby camp in al Bab, volunteers have converted a school bus into the Bus of Knowledge classroom.

Inside the decorated bus around 50 girls and boys as young as five take lessons in maths, life skills, Arabic and religion.

“Children are unable to go to the schools in the city. So we at the bus come to them with knowledge and provide them with the learning essentials such as reading and writing and basic mathematics,” said Mawiya Shular, 32, who fled a former rebel-held enclave in Homs three years ago.

“The feeling of being displaced gives me the motivation to work with these children. I want to get children out of their sense of alienation” said Shular, also a family counselor.

(Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Violent protests erupt around U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after U.S. air strikes

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Protesters and militia fighters enraged by U.S. air strikes on Iraq staged a violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, torching a security post and hurling stones as security forces and embassy guards hit back with stun grenades and tear gas.

Iraqi officials said the ambassador and other staff had been evacuated but this could not be confirmed with American officials.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence and said Tehran would be held responsible.

The protesters and militiamen stormed and burned a security post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy but did not breach the main compound, Reuters witnesses said.

They threw stones at the gate while others chanted, “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them entering the embassy. U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces later reinforced them.

Medical sources said 12 militiamen were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

U.S. planes on Sunday had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia – an action that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran at a time when mass protests are challenging Iraq’s political system.

The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet.

“Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified.”

Two Iraqi foreign ministry officials said the U.S. ambassador and other staff had left, but they did not say when.

The Washington Post reported that inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats and staffers were huddled in a fortified safe room, according to two reached by a messaging app.

A few hours into the protest, tear gas was fired in an attempt to disperse the crowd and some of the militias encouraged protesters through loudspeakers to leave.

“We have delivered our message, please leave the area to avoid bloodshed,” one announcement said.

Security guards inside the embassy also fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound. Reuters correspondents heard at least seven loud bangs.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiamen and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away from the scene.

‘CLOSED IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE’

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in their thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government.

But on Tuesday, it was the militias who protested, spraying “Closed in the name of the people” on the gates of the U.S. Embassy and smashed the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior leaders were among the protesters.

“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters.

Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shi’ite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al-Amiri were also at the protest.

There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq supporting local forces, though Iraq has rejected any long-term presence of additional U.S. forces that crossed its border during an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

Sunday’s air strikes killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55.

(Reporting By Ahmed Rasheed, Maher Nazeh and Thaier al-Sudani; writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump aides call U.S. strikes on Iraq and Syria ‘successful,’ warn of potential further action

By Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed

WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests.

The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.

Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.

Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.

“We discussed with him other options that are available,” Esper said. “I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.

The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In response to repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes … that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”

Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq and Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Fla; Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Jason Lange and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The number of Syrians fleeing attacks in the country’s northwestern Idlib province and heading toward Turkey has reached 120,000, a Turkish aid group said on Monday, adding it was setting up a camp for some of those uprooted.

Syrian and Russian forces have recently intensified their bombardment of targets in Idlib, which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture, prompting a wave of refugees toward Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Turkey cannot handle a fresh wave of migrants, warning that European countries will feel the impact of such an influx if violence in Syria’s northwest is not stopped.

“In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000,” said Selim Tosun, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media advisor in Syria.

Erdogan said on Sunday 80,000 people were currently on the move. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 40,000 civilians had been displaced since Thursday, the start of the latest military operation.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maraat al-Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, the IHH’s Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between the city of Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It was also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village some 13 km (8 miles) from the Turkish border.

Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.7 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world, after 8-1/2 years of civil war in Syria. Ankara fears another wave from the Idlib region, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last significant rebel-held swathe of territory.

A Turkish delegation was traveling to Moscow on Monday for talks which were expected to focus in part on Syria and which Erdogan had said would determine Turkey’s course of action in the region.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad in the war, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children

Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children
By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged world powers on Tuesday to help it resettle 1 million Syrian refugees very soon, accusing governments of moving more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children.

Erdogan, whose country hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population worldwide, said more than 600,000 should voluntarily join around 371,000 already in a “peace zone” in northern Syria from which Turkey drove Kurdish militia.

“I think the resettlement can easily reach 1 million in a very short period of time,” Erdogan told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva.

The plan met with scepticism from Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that while Turkey was far ahead in terms of hosting refugees, resettling Arab refugees in areas previously populated by Kurds was wrong.

“I hope this will not happen, really. It shouldn’t happen,” Egeland told Reuters.

Turkey has said it expected the Syrian Kurdish refugees it hosts, who number around 300,000, to be the first to return to the area between the border towns of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad.

Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said returns must be voluntary, refugees should be given support and property and other legal issues must be addressed.

“We are also urging the Syrian authorities to allow us a presence in the areas where people return because this could be a confidence-building measure,” Grandi told a news conference.

HIGH COST

Erdogan said Turkey had spent more than $40 billion hosting the refugees and criticized the European Union, which had pledged nearly 6 billion euros ($6.61 billion), for failing to deliver around half of that sum.

The European Commission has said it is committed to delivering the aid.

Two months ago, Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies launched a third cross-border offensive into northern Syria against the YPG, which had spearheaded the fight against Islamic State.

After seizing a 120-km (75 mile) strip of land from Ras al Ain to Tel Abyad in northeastern Syria, Ankara signed deals with Washington and Moscow to halt its assault.

Erdogan, taking a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, which moved quickly to guard Syrian oil fields after the retreat of Islamic State, said: “Unfortunately the efforts that were spared to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria.”

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil and has said the U.S.-led NATO alliance should be supporting its fellow member Turkey instead.

Turkey had said it could settle 2 million Syrian refugees in a planned “safe zone” stretching 444 km (275 miles) in northern Syria and has repeatedly urged NATO allies to help fund the plans. Last week, Erdogan said Turkey may settle 1 million refugees between Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad alone.

On Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey could build housing and schools in the zone as it has in other parts of northern Syria after driving out the YPG.

Around 150 Kurds demonstrated outside the U.N. European headquarters during his speech. Ramazan Baytar, head of the Kurdish Democratic Society Center in Switzerland, said Erdogan was using the refugee issue to enact demographic change. Turkey has blamed changing regional demographics on the YPG.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey and by Cecile Mantovani in Geneva; writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. accuses Russia of helping Syria cover up chemical weapons use

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday accused Russia of helping Syria conceal the use of banned toxic munitions in the civil war by undermining the work of the global chemical weapons agency trying to identify those responsible.

The comments by the U.S. representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Kenneth Ward, drew a rapid denial from Moscow and came as Western powers and Russia clashed at the agency’s annual conference in The Hague.

Moscow has for months cited dissent by two former OPCW employees who leaked a document and an email as evidence that the OPCW doctored the conclusions of a March 1 report which found that a toxic chemical containing chlorine was used in a 2018 attack near Damascus.

More than 40 people were killed in that attack in Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital then held by rebels, on April 7, 2018.

The United States, Britain and France retaliated a week later by firing missiles at Syrian government targets, the biggest Western military action against the Damascus authorities of the eight-year-old war.

Syria and Russia deny there ever was a chemical attack in Douma, saying the event was staged using bodies brought from elsewhere, and that the OPCW’s report on Douma was doctored to justify Western military intervention.

The OPCW has become the battleground for a diplomatic clash on Syria after Russia in 2017 vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which concluded in a series of reports that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons.

The OPCW’s own Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established by a clear majority vote by its member states in June 2018, is looking into who was responsible for the Douma attack, among several other incidents.

Its first report is expected next year.

Russian Ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, repeated objections to the creation of the IIT, saying it was illegal and politicized. Syria’s representative to the OPCW on Thursday vowed not to cooperate with the IIT’s investigations.

Ward said Russia and Syria were merely seeking to cover up the use of chemical weapons by undermining the OPCW.

“Unfortunately the Russian Federation has played a central role in this cover-up,” Ward told delegates. “Russia and Syria may sit with us here, but they stand apart from us in a fundamental way. They continue to embrace chemical weapons.”

Shulgin rejected the U.S. claim that Russia was helping Syria cover up chemical crimes carried out by the Syrian regime.

“It is exquisite rhetoric… But these assertions do not hold water. We disagree,” Shulgin said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees
By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it had deported two captives from Islamic State, a German and an American, starting a program to repatriate detainees that has caused friction with its NATO allies since it launched an offensive in northern Syria.

Ankara says it has captured 287 militants in northeast Syria and already holds hundreds more Islamic State suspects. It has accused European countries of being too slow to take back citizens who traveled to fight in the Middle East.

Allies have been worried that Islamic State militants could escape as a result of Turkey’s assault against Syrian Kurdish militia who have been holding thousands of the group’s fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said last week Turkey would begin to send foreign Islamic State militants back to their home countries starting on Monday, even if the nations the fighters came from had revoked their citizenship.

Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German were deported on Monday. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said detainees would be sent to their native countries.

The 23 others to be deported in coming days were all European, including a Dane expected to be sent abroad later on Monday, as well as two Irish nationals, nine other Germans and 11 French citizens.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed, with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified,” Catakli said, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency.

Germany’s foreign ministry said Ankara had informed Berlin of 10 people – three men, five women and two children. A spokesman said he did not know whether any were Islamic State fighters, but did not contest their citizenship. The ministry said seven were expected on Thursday and two on Friday.

“Citizens can rest assured that each individual case will be carefully examined by the German authorities,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. “We will do everything possible to prevent returnees with links to IS becoming a threat in Germany.”

The Danish Public Prosecutor said on Monday that Denmark and Turkey were in contact over a Danish citizen convicted of terrorism charges in Turkey.

While German and Danish authorities have confirmed they were aware of the Turkish plans, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said she was not aware of them.

A Dutch court in The Hague ruled on Monday that the Netherlands must help repatriate children of women who joined IS, but the mothers do not need to be accepted back.

SYRIA OFFENSIVE

Turkey launched its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia last month, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move U.S. troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a U.S. ally against Islamic State, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across northeast Syria and has also overseen camps where relatives of fighters have sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted concern over the fate of the prisoners, with Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against Islamic State and aid its resurgence.

Turkey has rejected those concerns and vowed to combat Islamic State with its allies. It has also accused the YPG of vacating some Islamic State jails.

European states are trying to speed up a plan to move thousands of jihadists out of Syrian prisons and into Iraq. Denmark, Germany and Britain have revoked the citizenship of some fighters and family members.

Last week Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying there were 1,201 Islamic State prisoners in Turkish jails, while Turkey had captured 287 militants in Syria.

On Monday, state broadcaster TRT Haber said Turkey aimed to repatriate around 2,500 militants, mostly to EU countries. It said there were 813 militants at 12 deportation centers.

Erdogan said Turkey had captured 13 people from the inner circle of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a U.S. raid last month.

(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Thomas Escritt in Berlin, Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Sophie Louet in Paris, Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Peter Graff)

Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul

Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul
By Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The British founder of an organization that trained the “White Helmets” emergency response group has been found dead in Istanbul, five years after the group was set up to perform rescue work in rebel areas during the Syrian civil war.

The body of James Le Mesurier, founder of the Mayday Rescue group, was found early on Monday near his home in central Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, a neighbor said. The Istanbul Governor’s Office said an investigation had been launched.

A security source told Reuters it was believed that Le Mesurier had fallen from the balcony of his home office and his death was being treated as suspected suicide.

The White Helmets, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas hit by bombing by government and Russian forces in Syria’s more than eight-year-old civil war.

White Helmets members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Moscow, describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Twitter on Friday that the White Helmets help “the most dangerous terrorist groups” and that Le Mesurier was a former British agent with reported “connections to terrorist groups”.

Ambassador Karen Pierce, UK Permanent Representative to the UN, described Le Mesurier as a “true hero” when she was asked about his death by reporters.

“The causes of death at the moment are unclear. We will be looking very closely to see how the investigation goes. I hope the Turkish authorities will be able to investigate thoroughly,” she said.

“The Russian charges against him, that came out of the foreign ministry that he was a spy, (are) categorically untrue. He was a British soldier,” she added.

Mayday Rescue, a not-for-profit organization, began its operations in 2014 and established an office in Istanbul in 2015 to support its Syria project. Its projects have been funded by the United Nations and various governments, its website said.

A former British army officer, Le Mesurier was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2016 for services to Syria Civil Defence and the protection of civilians in Syria.

The security source said Le Mesurier’s wife told police that she and her husband had taken sleeping pills around 4 a.m. and went to bed. She said she was later woken by knocking on the door and discovered that her husband was lying on the street surrounded by police, the source added.

A diplomat told Reuters the circumstances around the death were unclear.

Mayday Rescue did not immediately respond to an emailed query.

Syria Civil Defence on Twitter expressed “our deepest sorrow and solidarity” with Le Mesurier’s family. “We also must commend his humanitarian efforts which Syrians will always remember,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.

Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.
By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 60 medical facilities have been hit in Syria’s Idlib province in the past six months, including four this week, and appear to have been deliberately targeted by government-affiliated forces, a U.N. rights spokesman said on Friday.

Idlib in Syria’s northwest, the target of a Russian-backed offensive launched this summer to capture it and surrounding areas, is part of the last major rebel bastion in Syria’s 8 1/2-year war.

Since April 29, 61 medical facilities have been hit there, including some that were struck several times, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told journalists.

“We can’t determine if every single attack is deliberate but the large scale of these attacks…strongly suggests that government-affiliated forces conducting these strikes are, at least partly, if not wholly, deliberately striking health facilities,” he said at a Geneva news briefing.

“They can’t possibly all be accidents,” he told Reuters later. He said that, if it is proven that any or some of these were deliberate, they would amount to war crimes.

Damage was reported at the Kafr Nobol hospital on Nov. 6 – which had also been hit in May and July – and two air strikes also directly hit the al-Ikhlas hospital in southern Idlib, incapacitating it this week, Colville said.

Pressure is building for an investigation into attacks on Syrian hospitals amid allegations that hundreds have taken place over the course of the 8-1/2 year conflict.

The United Nations passes on information provided by NGOs about the location of medical facilities along with other data to parties to the conflict. The aim of this is to avoid attacks on such facilities, which are protected under international humanitarian law, but it has been criticized as a means of facilitating exactly the opposite.

Syria’s war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and forced 13 million people from their homes, half of whom have left their wrecked country.

Since a Turkish-led offensive across Syria’s northern border a month ago to push out Kurdish YPG fighters, at least 92 civilians have been killed in northern and northeastern Syria, Colville added.

That offensive displaced 200,000 people, of whom nearly half of them remain displaced are dispersed across camps and shelters, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, said on Friday.

A U.N.-backed panel met for the first time in Geneva this week, with delegates from the government, opposition and civil society, in what the United Nations says is an important step on the long road to political rapprochement in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)