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)

Two hundred families trapped by Islamic State in Syria, U.N. says

FILE PHOTO: Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drink tea in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Some 200 families are trapped in a shrinking area of Syria controlled by Islamic State, whose forces are stopping many from fleeing, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, calling for the families’ safe passage.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are on the brink of defeating IS in its last pocket in eastern Syria, the village of Baghouz, where it estimates a few hundred Islamic State fighters and about 2,000 civilians are under siege.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Many of the families “… continue to be subjected to intensified air and ground-based strikes by the U.S.-led Coalition forces and their SDF allies on the ground,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“We understand that ISIL appears to be preventing some of them if not all of them from leaving. So that’s potentially a war crime on the part of ISIL,” her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

The SDF attacking Islamic State have an obligation under international law to take all precautions to protect civilians who are mixed in with the foreign fighters, he said.

In Syria’s northwest, Syrian government forces and their allies have intensified a bombing campaign in Idlib and surrounding areas in recent weeks, coupled with attacks by armed groups that have killed civilians, Bachelet said.

Twin explosions in the bustling center of rebel-held Idlib city on Monday killed at least 15 people and injured scores, medics and witnesses said.. Bachelet put the death toll from that incident at 16 with more than 70 injured.

Bachelet also voiced concern for some 20,000 people who fled the ISIL-controlled areas in eastern Deir al-Zor governorate in recent weeks. They are being held in makeshift camps run by the Kurdish armed groups, including SDF, who are reported to be preventing IDPs from leaving the camps, she said.

“Particular care needs to be taken with the civilians and if possible they should be treated humanely, and allowed to leave the camps. They shouldn’t be held in detention unless they are suspected of committing a particular crime,” Colville said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

U.N. accuses Mexico of torture, cover-up in case of 43 missing students

FILE PHOTO: Relatives pose with images of some of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa College Raul Isidro Burgos students in front of a monument of the number 43, during a march to mark the 41st month since their disappearance in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Mexico February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. human rights office said on Thursday that Mexican authorities had tortured dozens of people in connection with an investigation into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, and it called for a full inquiry.

Mexico said on Monday it had arrested a suspected drug gang member regarded as a key figure in the kidnapping and massacre of the 43 student teachers. Activists say the case is emblematic of widespread gang violence in the country.

The atrocity plunged President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government into one of its worst crises as doubts swirled around the conduct of the investigation into the case.

“The findings of the report point to a pattern of committing, tolerating and covering up torture in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report.

Mexico’s mission in Geneva said the ambassador was not immediately available to comment on the report, entitled “Double injustice – human rights violations in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case”.

An initial investigation found that the students, who were on five buses, were abducted by corrupt police who handed them over to members of a drug cartel, who killed them, incinerated their bodies at a trash dump and threw the ashes into a river.

However, the official account has been widely questioned by local and international human rights experts. Only a bone fragment from one student has been found near a river.

Zeid’s office, which examined information related to 63 out of 129 people detained in connected with the case, said it had documented arbitrary detention and torture based on interviews, judicial files and medical records.

It had information on the possible torture of 51 people and “solid grounds to conclude that at least 34 of these individuals were tortured”, including one woman. But it stopped short of attributing blame for the murders.

“Ayotzinapa is a test case of the Mexican authorities’ willingness and ability to tackle serious human rights violations,” Zeid said. “I urge the Mexican authorities to ensure that the search for truth and justice regarding Ayotzinapa continues, and also that those responsible for torture and other human rights violations committed during the investigation are held accountable.”

The U.N. report calls for any evidence in the Ayotzinapa case for which there are credible indications that it was obtained under torture to be excluded or invalidated.

A team of international experts said in September 2015 that Mexico’s official account of the Ayotzinapa case did not add up, citing deep flaws in the inquiry and dismissing its claims that the victims were incinerated in a garbage dump.

In their report, the experts suggested the missing bus may have been carrying a shipment of cash or drugs.

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday that crimes against humanity had been committed in Mexico “in the name of security”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iraqi troops battle Islamic State inside Mosul

Tribal fighters walk as fire and smoke rises from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before IS militants fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq,

By Stephen Kalin and Dominic Evans

EAST OF MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces battled Islamic State fighters on the eastern edge of Mosul on Tuesday as the two-week campaign to recapture the jihadists’ last main bastion in Iraq entered a new phase of urban warfare.

Artillery and air strikes pounded the city, still home to 1.5 million people, and residents of the eastern neighborhood of al-Quds said the ultra-hardline Sunni militants had resorted to street fighting to try to hold the army back.

Soldiers of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CST) also entered the state television station in Mosul on Tuesday, the first capture of an important building in the Islamic State-held city since the start of the offensive about two weeks ago, the force commander, Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati, said.

“This is a good sign for the people of Mosul because the battle to liberate Mosul has effectively begun,” Shaghati said.

Iraqi troops, security forces, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga have been advancing on several fronts toward Mosul, backed by U.S.-led troops and air forces. Special forces units sweeping in from the east have made fastest progress.

“We are currently fighting battles on the eastern outskirts of Mosul,” CTS Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi said. “The pressure is on all sides of the city to facilitate entry to the city center.”

He said CTS forces had cleared Islamic State fighters from most of the eastern district of Kokjali, close to al-Quds, on Tuesday, “so now we are inside the district of Mosul”.

Blackish grey smoke hung in the air east of the Islamists’ stronghold and the regular sound of outgoing artillery fire could be heard, said a Reuters reporter near Bazwaia, about five km (three miles) east of Mosul.

Inside the city, residents speaking to Reuters by telephone said they heard the sounds of heavy clashes since dawn.

One inhabitant of al-Quds district at the city’s eastern entrance said bullets were fizzing past and hitting the walls of houses, describing the explosions as “deafening and frightening”. Many people in the area have stayed indoors for the last two days.

“We can see Daesh (Islamic State) fighters firing towards the Iraqi forces and moving in cars between the alleys of the neighborhood. It’s street fighting.”

One witness said he saw nine cars, laden with families and furniture, heading from the eastern half of the to the west bank of the Tigris River to escape the encroaching frontline.

Away from the eastern fringe of the city, however, traffic was relatively normal, markets were open, and Islamic State fighters were patrolling as usual.

“CHOP THE SNAKE’S HEAD”

Mosul is many times bigger than any other city held by Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. Its recapture would mark the collapse of the Iraqi wing of the caliphate which it declared in parts of both countries two years ago, although the hardline Sunni militants have recovered from other setbacks in Iraq.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Monday that Iraqi forces were trying to close off all escape routes for the several thousand Islamic State fighters inside Mosul.

“God willing, we will chop off the snake’s head,” Abadi, wearing military fatigues, told state television. “They have no escape, they either die or surrender.”

Commanders have warned that the fight for Mosul, which could be the toughest of the decade-long turmoil since the U.S. invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, is likely to last for months.

The United Nations has said the Mosul offensive could also trigger a humanitarian crisis and a possible refugee exodus if the civilians inside in Mosul seek to escape, with up to 1 million people fleeing in a worst-case scenario.

The International Organisation for Migration said that nearly 18,000 people have been displaced since the start of the campaign on Oct. 17, excluding thousands of villagers who were forced back into Mosul by retreating jihadists who used them as human shields.

U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said Islamic State fighters tried to force another 25,000 civilians from a town south of Mosul back toward the city on Monday. Most of the trucks carrying them turned back under pressure from patrolling aircraft, she said.

Not all those heading back were doing so under duress from the militants, according to Mosul residents who said people were streaming in from the south as military operations edged closer to the city.

Most came without any belongings, though some brought sheep and a few camels into the city, they said.

In Bazwaia, CTS guards told Reuters that a suicide car bomber tried to attack their position early on Tuesday, but they halted it with machinegun fire. Rubble and parts of the attacker’s body could still be seen by a nearby berm.

As well as the suicide attacks, the Islamic State militants have slowed the army’s advance with snipers, mortar fire, roadside bombs and booby traps inside abandoned buildings.

In Bazwaia, recaptured by Iraqi troops a day earlier, about a dozen civilians could be seen coming out of the village, waving white flags and bringing with them their livestock — about 200 sheep and a few cows and donkeys.

A man who just fled Bazwaia village carries a white flag as he arrives at a special forces checkpoint, east of Mosul, Iraq,

A man who just fled Bazwaia village carries a white flag as he arrives at a special forces checkpoint, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Saidi, the CTS officer, said 500 civilians had already been moved from Bazwaia to a camp for displaced people further away from the frontline.

“We expect to encounter more civilians as we push through the city,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Tom Miles in Geneva, Writing by Dominic Evans in Baghdad, Editing by Angus MacSwan)