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Russian airstrikes in Syria killed 2,000 civilians in six months

Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed about 2,000 civilians in six months of attacks on markets, hospitals, schools and homes, rights groups and observers say, warning that plans for a military drawdown may not mean an end to the deaths.

Russia rejects Syria war crimes claim over hospital attacks
Russia rejected Syria war crimes claim over hospital attacks

Moscow has insisted it carried out only surgical strikes on “terrorists”, but victims and fighters say bombers strayed well behind frontlines in areas far from strongholds of Islamic State or al-Qaida fighters.

Jets appear to have intentionally bombed civilian areas, in a campaign to spread fear and clear areas where government ground troops were planning to advance. Coalition airstrikes led by the US have also killed civilians, but have stricter rules of engagement.

“Any strategic benefits of Russia’s intervention have come at a bloody cost to civilians, with all local casualty recorders in agreement that 2,000 or more non-combatants have died,” said Chris Woods, director of monitoring organisation Airwars which collects and evaluates casualty reports.

“Thousands more opposition fighters have also died, in a Russian campaign which has outstripped the coalition both in terms of tempo and aggressiveness,” Woods said.

Many children have been among the dead, including a five-year-old whose death was documented by the Guardian, killed along with a cousin and her grandfather soon after the bombing raids began.

The Violations Documentation Centre, which provides public notes on the location of attacks by all sides, with details including names and ages of the dead where possible, puts the civilian toll from Russian strikes over 2,000 by mid-March.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the civilian death toll at over 1,700 at the end of February, its latest update, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights gave an even higher figure at the same time.

The airforce of President Bashar al-Assad was notorious for droppingindiscriminate “barrel bombs” on rebel-held areas before Moscow stepped up its intervention last autumn, and is likely to continue attacks in coming months. But Russian planes have more sophisticated weapons and are less restricted by the weather.

“With fewer Russian forces active in Syria, civilians – especially medics – may feel they’ll get some much-needed respite from attacks which have already killed hundreds of Syrian civilians,” said Amnesty International UK’s Syria campaign manager Kristyan Benedict.

But he warned that with extensive military infrastructure for Russian forces now in place, and bombing still under way, civilians should not assume they would be more secure.

“Extreme caution is still necessary – Russian forces and military hardware remain in Syria, and Putin no doubt exercises the option of sending them back. Meanwhile, his forces are still bombing in Syria even now, so we’re fully expecting yet more hospitals and civilian homes to be hit.” Guardian