Saturday 24 March 2018

Airstrike on refugee camp 'could constitute a war crime', says UN chief

Syrian president Bashar Assad's military operations against insurgents have focused on the northern city of Aleppo (AP)
Syrian president Bashar Assad's military operations against insurgents have focused on the northern city of Aleppo (AP)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said there must be serious consequences for whoever is responsible for a "seemingly calculated attack" on a refugee camp in Syria in which at least 28 people died.

Mr Ban said he was outraged by Thursday's attack in Syria's Idlib province, which could constitute a war crime.

In a statement, he said the UN was working with humanitarian partners on the ground, to assess the needs and mobilising a response for those who fled the makeshift camp for displaced persons fearing further attacks.

Earlier Russian and Syrian officials denied that their aircraft struck the camp in an air strike.

The denials came as activists said a coalition of rebels and militants, including Syria's al Qaida branch, seized a strategic village from pro-government forces near the contested city of Aleppo.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 73 fighters - 43 on the opposition side and 30 pro-government troops - have died since Thursday afternoon in the battle for the village of Khan Touman.

The advance signals a re-emergence of a powerful, ultraconservative coalition on the opposition's side in the Syria conflict.

A Syrian military official denied the army had carried out any operation against the Sarmada refugee camp, where the 28 died, including women and children, and dozens were wounded. The official said all reports about the attack are false.

A Russian military official said that no Russian or any other aircraft made flights over the camp in Sarmada, home to about 2,000 internally displaced people who fled the fighting from the surrounding Aleppo and Hama provinces over the past year.

Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the Russian military had closely studied data from an air space monitoring system and determined that no aircraft had flown over the camp on Wednesday or Thursday.

Mr Konashenkov said the destruction seen on photographs and videos suggested the camp could have been shelled, whether intentionally or by mistake, from multiple rocket launchers that the Syrian al Qaida affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, has been using in the area.

Meanwhile, renewed fighting broke out on Friday around the village of Khan Touman, the observatory reported. Fighter jets, presumed to belong to either Syria or its powerful ally Russia, were launching strikes on opposition positions.

Leading the opposition side was the coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, an ultraconservative group led by the Nusra Front, and the jihadi Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. The observatory said other non-jihadi factions were fighting at Khan Touman on the side of the coalition, as well.

The Army of Conquest seized Idlib, a strategic and symbolically important provincial capital, from government forces last year and threatened to make advances towards government strongholds on the Mediterranean coast and toward the capital, Damascus. Russia intervened militarily on the side of the government partly in response to that threat.

But the coalition is internally divided over who it considers enemies and how it rules areas under its control.

Khan Touman is just four miles from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and one-time commercial capital. It overlooks the main route between Damascus and Aleppo, parts of which remain under opposition control.

"It is part of the government's defensive line in south Aleppo," said observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.

Aleppo-area opposition media activist Bahaa al-Halaby said the opposition fighters took control of Khan Touman around 7am on Friday morning.

Press Association

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