Air strikes pound Syria’s last rebel strongholds, gas chokes civilians

A man is seen near the remains of a rocket in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 22, 2018.

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Warplanes launched heavy attacks on the two last major rebel-held areas in Syria, killing at least 29 people in the Ghouta suburb near the capital and choking people with gas in Idlib in the northwest, rescue workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has vowed to retake all of Syria from rebels who have lost large swathes of the territory they have held in a war now entering its eighth year.

A years-long siege on the last major rebel-held area near the capital Damascus, the suburb of eastern Ghouta, has tightened in recent months. In the northwest, the government and its militia allies have been trying to advance in mostly rural Idlib, the last province still largely under rebel control.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said warplanes attacking eastern Ghouta near Damascus had struck the towns of Zamalka, Arbaeen, Hazza and Beitu Soua, killing at least 29 people. State media said rebel fighters shelling the government-held capital killed a woman.

International concern has been growing over the fate of eastern Ghouta, where residents say they have been running out of food and medicine.

In the northwest, the other main battlefield in the war between Assad’s government and its main rebel opponents, bombing also intensified on Sunday night after rebels shot down a Russian warplane on Saturday.

Rescue workers said at least nine people had suffered breathing problems from chemicals dropped from the air. Aid groups and rescuers said three hospitals had also been struck.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a charity which supports hospitals in Syria, said its doctors in Idlib reported 11 patients “with symptoms indicative to usage of chlorine”.

Two barrels containing chemical gasses had been dropped from helicopters on Sunday night, Radi Saad, from the chemical weapons team of the White Helmets civil defense group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the White Helmets and the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said healthcare facilities in northwestern Syria had been hit by air strikes.

“With the majority of hospitals no longer operating in these areas, these latest attacks will deprive tens of thousands of life-saving care,” the ICRC said on Twitter.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chlorine or other chemical weapons during Syria’s conflict. Rescue workers and medical groups have accused government forces of using chlorine gas against the rebel-held eastern Ghouta at least three times over the last month, most recently on Thursday.


Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013. In the past two years, a joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. The inquiry also said the Islamic State group has used sulfur mustard.

The German government called on Monday for a thorough investigation into reports Syria had used chemical weapons in both Idlib and eastern Ghouta.

“If it is confirmed that the Syrian government has once again used chemical weapons, that would be an abhorrent act and an egregious violation of the moral and legal obligation to avoid the use of chemical weapons,” a German foreign ministry official said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon, and Washington was also concerned about the potential use of sarin.

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes. Neighbors and global powers have been drawn into the multi-sided conflict, sponsoring allied groups on the ground.

Turkish forces are in northwest Syria, entering Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement reached with Assad’s backers Russia and Iran. They also expanded their operation two weeks ago into the nearby Afrin region to fight against Kurdish militias who hold that territory.

The Turkish army said on Monday its forces had set up a military post southwest of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the deepest position they have established so far inside northwest Syria under their deal with Russia and Iran.

The “de-escalation” in violence they were supposed to monitor has collapsed. In December, the Syrian army alongside Iran-backed militias and heavy Russian air power launched a major offensive to take territory in Idlib province.

The Observatory said the new Turkish observation post was near the village of al-Eis. That would place it less than five km (three miles) from territory held by Syrian government forces and their allies, and deeper inside Syria than the three observation posts set up by the Turkish army so far.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowell in Beirut, Daren Butler and Tulay Karadeniz in Turkey, Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

Russia orders warplanes in Syria to fly higher after jet shot down

The scene shows, what according to Syrian rebels were fires caused by Russian military plane shot down by rebel forces near Idlib, Syria, reportedly on February 3, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media via

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has ordered its warplanes in Syria to fly higher to avoid being shot down by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles after one of its jets was downed at the weekend, the Izvestia daily reported on Monday.

Syrian rebels shot the Russian SU-25 plane out of the sky on Saturday in Idlib Province. Russia’s defense ministry said the pilot ejected, fought with rebels on the ground, then blew himself up with a grenade when they got close to him.

Izvestia, citing the ministry, said a decision had been taken that such planes would in future only fly above 5,000 meters (16,400 ft) to keep them safe.

It said that such a policy had previously been in force, but that the SU-25s had for some reason started flying at lower altitudes in recent days.

Shoulder-launched missiles obtained by rebels now posed a threat to all planes operating in Syria, the Kremlin said. But it said it was too early to say who had supplied the weapons system used to shoot down the Russian SU-25.

“It’s extremely worrying that shoulder-launched surface-to air missiles are in the hands of the terrorists,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

“It’s a huge danger for all governments.”

Peskov did not signal wider changes in Russia’s policy in Syria where Moscow has been supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s army for more than two years.

He said that Russia had enough firepower left in Syria to deliver “crushing blows” to rebel forces as and when needed.


Russia carried out a series of “pinpoint strikes” against rebel targets to respond to the shooting down, said Peskov.

Rescuers and opposition activists accused Russian planes of targeting residential areas and a hospital in those strikes.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. It has repeatedly rejected allegations that its planes target civilians, saying they take great care to avoid collateral damage.

The Russian Defence Ministry named the downed pilot as Major Roman Filipov and said he had been posthumously awarded with a Hero of Russia decoration.

It said he had fought to his last breath after ejecting and parachuting to the ground where rebels had attacked him.

“Major Roman Filipov fought an unequal battle with his service weapon until the last minute of his life,” the ministry said in a statement.

“When surrounded by the terrorists and heavily wounded, the Russian officer blew himself up with a grenade when the militants got within several dozen meters of him.”

Russian media have reported that Syrian and possibly Russian special forces are operating in the area where he was killed to try to retrieve his body, along with fragments of the projectile that struck his plane, to try to work out who supplied it to the rebels.

“The pilot died heroically,” said Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. “We are proud of our heroes.”

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Blast wounds 13 in Pakistani city on edge after big large suicide attack

Security officials gather at the site of a bomb explosion in Quetta, Pakistan,

By Asad Hashim and Gul Yusufzai

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – A roadside bomb hit a Pakistani security vehicle and wounded 13 people on Thursday in the southwestern city of Quetta, days after a suicide bombing at a hospital killed at least 74 people, most of them lawyers, officials and media said.

The driver of the police pickup truck managed to drive the damaged vehicle to the Civil Hospital of Quetta – the same facility hit in Monday’s attack – to get the wounded to medical treatment.

The truck was parked outside the hospital with its mangled bonnet, blown-out wheels and blood-stained interior later on Thursday.

About 10 police officers were guarding the entrance to the hospital.

Provincial interior minister Safaraz Bugti said Thursday’s bomb targeted police escorting a judge, who was not hurt in the attack.

“It was a judge’s car that was passing, but I believe it was the police who were the target,” he said on Pakistani television.

Medical Superintendent Abdul Rehman Miankhel told Reuters that 13 wounded people, including four members of the security forces, were being treated at the hospital.

An announcer for Geo TV warned viewers not to gather at the scene in central Quetta for fear of a second bombing, like the one on Monday.

The Monday attack hit a large group of lawyers gathered at the hospital to mourn the head of the provincial bar association who was shot dead earlier that day.

“Care must be taken that a rush not be created at the scene as the terrorists have reached the point of barbarity where they target crowds like this,” the news announcer said.

Monday’s suicide bombing was Pakistan’s deadliest attack this year. It was claimed by both a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, and also by the Islamic State militant group, which has been seeking to recruit followers in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Targeted killings have become increasingly common in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province that has seen rising violence linked to a separatist insurgency as well as sectarian tension and rising crime.

Later on Thursday, Bugti told Reuters that security at all potential targets was being beefed up around Baluchistan.

A Chinese-funded trade corridor with promised investment of $46 billion is due to pass through the gas-rich province and the government has promised to boost security.

“We have already done (added security) for our schools, educational institutions and universities … Watchtowers have also been constructed,” he said.

“But obviously this new threat against hospitals has emerged – we are checking that and will beef up.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

U.N. investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Journalists and civilians stand near the damage after rockets fired by insurgents hit the al-Dabit maternity clinic in government-held

GENEVA (Reuters) – States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said.

“Until the culture of impunity is uprooted, civilians will continue to be targeted, victimized and brutally killed.”

International law requires all parties to the conflict to distinguish between lawful and unlawful targets, but that distinction had been ignored and some recent attacks had been war crimes, the statement said.

It cited an attack on the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo governorate on April 27 and other attacks on nearby medical facilities, and air strikes on markets, bakeries and a water station, as well as the May 5 attack on a refugee camp in Idlib.

Those attacks all happened after a two-month ceasefire, brokered by Russia and the United states, unraveled, and Syrian government forces said they would launch an assault to recapture rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

The statement did not explicitly attribute blame for attacks on civilians, but only Syria’s government and its ally Russia are using aircraft in the conflict.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said last week that initial reports suggested Syrian government aircraft were responsible for the attack on the refugee camp in Idlib governorate, which killed about 30 people. Syria’s military said they had not targeted the camp.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Rebels bombard Aleppo killing 19 and hitting a hospital

A Syrian army soldier helps to evacuate civilians after rockets fired by insurgents hit the al-Dabit maternity clinic in government-held parts of Aleppo city

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Rebels bombarded government-held areas of Aleppo with rockets on Tuesday, killing 19 people and hitting a hospital, while also launching a ground assault on army-held positions of the divided city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Syrian army said insurgents had launched a widespread assault and that it was responding. State-run Syrian news channel Ikhbariya said three women were killed and 17 more people wounded at the al-Dabit maternity clinic.

The army statement said the attack was at “a time when international and local efforts are being made to shore up the (cessation of hostilities agreement) and to implement … calm in Aleppo”.

The Observatory said the hospital had been heavily damaged.

In rebel-held parts of Aleppo, the Observatory said there had been three air strikes, citing information of an unconfirmed number of people killed.

The Observatory said 279 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by bombardments since April 22, with 155 of them killed in opposition-held areas, and 124 killed in government-held districts.

The ground assault focused on the Jamiat al-Zahraa area of the city, where insurgent groups detonated tunnels and took a few buildings before advances were checked by the arrival of reinforcements on the government side, the Observatory said.

A Syrian army source said a car bomb was used in an attack nearby, adding that the assault had failed. The source added that “matters had been moving toward Aleppo being included in the truce, but it seems there are those who do not want that”.

Asked if it reduced the chances of a truce in Aleppo, the source said: “Certainly, because practically the one carrying out these actions does not want a truce”.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry, editing by Richard Balmforth)