Russia denies deaths in Idlib
MOSCOW, Sept 28, (Agencies): The Russian Defence Ministry on Thursday denied allegations that Russian and Syrian jets had killed at least 150 civilians in over a week of bombing, saying it had been careful not to hit civilians.
The ministry was responding to comments made on Wednesday by opposition rescue workers who accused Moscow and Damascus of killing at least 150 civilians and of injuring dozens in air strikes in Idlib Province.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that the opposition-run Civil Defence group which made the allegations was made up of “charlatans” who could not be regarded as objective sources of reliable information.
“Russian air force planes do not strike residential districts in populated areas in order to avoid casualties,” Konashenkov said.
“Targets are terrorist bases, armoured vehicles and ammunition stories which are always identified by drones and always confirmed by other channels beforehand.”
He said Russian planes operating in Idlib Province had only targeted militant fighters and their equipment in the last week.
Earlier on Wednesday, opposition rescue workers said 150 civilians were killed in Russian, Syrian raids on Idlib.
Russian and Syrian jets killed at least 150 civilians and injured dozens in over a week of heavy bombing that shattered a six-month halt in intensive aerial raids in opposition-held northwestern parts of Syria, opposition rescue workers said on Wednesday.
“We have pulled 152 bodies and we have rescued 279 civilians since the Russian and regime bombing campaign,” said Salem Abu al Azem, a senior rescue worker from the opposition-run Civil Defence in Idlib, adding bodies were still being pulled out of the wreckage of buildings flattened by air raids.
Meanwhile, Islamic State militants on Thursday attacked a village in eastern Syria recently captured by government forces, threatening to cut the main highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the city of Deir Ezzor, Syrian opposition activists said.
The attack on al-Shola village was one of the strongest staged by IS in the region recently, three weeks after Syrian troops broke a nearly three-year long siege of parts of Deir Ezzor, the capital of the oil-rich province that carries the same name.
It was also a surprise as IS militants have been squeezed in the province by Russian-backed Syrian troops and US-backed members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al-Shola was under attack on Thursday. Omar Abou Leila, of the monitoring group DeirEzzor 24, and the IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the extremists captured the village.
Abou Laila said IS fighters appear to have come from the town of Mayadeen, one of the largest remaining strongholds of the militants in Syria.
Earlier Thursday, the Observatory said government forces have laid siege to ISheld neighborhoods of Deir Ezzor but Abou Leila could not confirm that.
The race for control of the territory and resources in this province bordering Iraq has caused friction between government forces and the Kurdish-led SDF. The US-backed fighters say government forces and Russian warplanes have attacked them. Russia warned it would retaliate after it said Syrian government troops came under fire from the US-backed forces.
Russia and the United States say they are working out a mechanism to avoid friction in the common fight against Islamic State militants.
Meanwhile, Hamoudeh Sabbagh, a little-known legislator, was elected speaker of parliament, the state news agency SANA reported in Damascus. The new People’s Assembly chief won 193 votes, while his closest opponent garnered only 10.
Sabbagh replaces Hadiyah Abbas, who was removed in June with a majority of votes because of “undemocratic behaviors,” according to a statement.
Pro-government websites said Sabbagh is a member of President Bashar Assad’s ruling Baath party and was elected to parliament in 2012.
Assad’s family has ruled Syria since 1970, and so far the Syrian president has remained in power despite the civil war, now in its seventh year, sparked by an uprising against him.
The United Nations condemned air raids on five hospitals and two humanitarian warehouses in Idlib, Syria, this week and called for setting up a system so warring sides would protect civilians and medical facilities near “terrorist” groups.
Jan Egeland, UN humanitarian adviser on Syria, said it was not clear who had carried out the attacks, but said it was part of an escalating trend to attack “humanitarian lifelines” including hospitals, ambulances and health workers.
“We urgently need a workable and respected system of notification for these protected localities that armed actors will respect,” he told reporters, although he conceded that some aid agencies were reluctant to share their GPS coordinates with the warring sides.
The UN’s top envoy for Syria announced Wednesday that new talks between Syria’s government and opposition will take place “in about a month” and said this eighth round must finally move to “genuine negotiations on the political future” of the war-ravaged country.
Staffan de Mistura told the UN Security Council that both sides should use the coming month to create conditions for the talks in Geneva “to be meaningful,” and to participate “without preconditions.”
His announcement that talks will start no later than the end of October or very early in November comes as the Syrian government reverses military losses in much of the country’s strategically important west and as foreign governments cut support for rebel forces.
With the civil war now more than 6-1/2 years old, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies have taken control of the country’s four largest cities and its Mediterranean coast. Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-sponsored militias, pro-government forces have marched across energy-rich Homs province and were fighting Wednesday on the east bank of the Euphrates River.
De Mistura told the council that fighters for the Islamic State extremist group are “being beaten back.” He pointed to the breaking of a three-year siege of Deir Ezzor city by IS, also known as ISIS, and the US-led international coalition taking control of most of the city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the militant group’s selfstyled caliphate.
He pointed to the creation of four de-escalation zones as “an important next step” in efforts to reduce violence.
These zones should be a precursor “to a truly nationwide cease-fire” and action to provide humanitarian aid to all in need, he said. Talks in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana, which have focused on local cease-fires and deescalation zones, “should be seen as laying the basis for a renewed Geneva process,” he added.
De Mistura called on both Syria’s government and opposition to use the weeks before the next talks “to assess the situation with realism and responsibility.”
He said the divided opposition has “a duty to signal that it wants to speak with one voice and a common platform in genuine negotiations with the government.” The government has a duty “to genuinely negotiate with the opposition,” he said.
A Russian general killed in Syria had been seconded to the Syrian government as a military commander, Russia’s military chief of staff said on Wednesday.
Moscow has long been a staunch ally of Syria, but the role of the deceased general reveals the extent to which Russia has become an integral part of President Bashar al Assad’s ruling system.
Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov, 51, was killed on Saturday by shelling from Islamic State positions near Deir Ezzor. He was the chief of staff of Russian forces deployed to the country and later became the commander of Syria’s Fifth Corps of volunteers, chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov said.