UN probe: Russia behind deadly airstrike in Syria's Idlib

U.N. war crimes investigators said Tuesday that a Russian plane was apparently behind an airstrike in November in Syria's Idlib province that killed 84 people at a marketplace, 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.

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

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

The commission, which was created 6 ½ 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 an air base in Syria run by Russian forces, the Hemeimeem air base.

Russia is a main backer of President Bashar Assad's forces and has helped turn the tide of war in his favor with a campaign of air strikes.

However, the Russian military strongly denies accusations of killing civilians and insists its forces in Syria have only launched strikes on militant targets, after verifying their location through different intelligence assets, 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 account to a war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death and injury to civilians."

The three-member commission, chaired by Brazilian lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has also criticized actions by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, notably saying it failed to take proper precautions in avoiding civilian deaths in al-Mansoura last March that killed at least 150 displaced people.

Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have previously linked Russia to 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 on the region of eastern Ghouta, just outside the capital of 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 Syrian government officials say they are making advances against rebel forces.

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Issa reported from Beirut.