Russia Denies Warplanes Hit Syrian Hospital

BEIRUT (AP) -
A view of the damaged interior of what is said to be a hospital after a missile attack in Azaz, Aleppo, Syria, February 15, 2016 in this still image taken from a video on a social media website. Seven Russian missiles struck a hospital in the northern Syrian town of Azaz on Monday, a Turkish security official said, adding the civilian death toll to rise above 14. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TVATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A view of the damaged interior of what is said to be a hospital after a missile attack in Azaz, Syria, Monday, in this still image taken from a video. (Reuters/Social Media Website via Reuters)

Russia on Tuesday rebuffed claims that its warplanes struck a hospital in northern Syria in airstrikes the previous day. Those strikes killed at least nine people, as Syrian government forces and a predominantly Kurdish coalition continue to make gains against rival groups in the country’s north.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the hospital report was yet another false accusation against Russia with no evidence to back up the claim. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said Russian warplanes targeted the hospital in Idlib province on Monday, destroying it and killing nine people. France said that such strikes, if intentional, “could constitute war crimes.”

Peskov, in a conference call with journalists, referred the parties making the accusations to the “primary source” and said they should rely on official announcements from the Syrian government. “For us, in this situation, the primary source is the official announcement from the Syrian government,” he said. When pressed, he told journalists that the Syrian government had made a string of announcements on who might have been behind the bombing. He also noted that Syria’s ambassador to Russia said the hospital was destroyed by the Americans.

The airstrikes came just days after Russia and other world powers agreed to bring about a ceasefire that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the revival of Syrian peace talks. The projected truce agreed upon last Friday in Munich was to begin in a week, but there has been no indication that it will actually happen.

Meanwhile, Syrian government troops and a predominantly Kurdish coalition of fighters advanced and captured more areas in the north from rival groups on Tuesday, while pro-government forces routed IS terrorists from a main power station that the extremists had used as a jailhouse. The Observatory said the station and nearby villages were captured under the cover of aerial attacks by Syrian and Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships. The north has been the focus of the most intense clashes in recent weeks in Syria.

Syria’s state news agency SANA and the Observatory said government forces took the villages of Ahras and Misqan in the northern province of Aleppo. Separately, members of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Arab and Kurdish groups, captured the major town of Tel Rifaat, one of the largest rebel strongholds in Aleppo.After Tel Rifaat, SDF fighters also took the nearby village of Kfar Naseh.

The SDF fighters are a separate entity in Syria’s five-year civil war and have mostly battled the Islamic State terror group. Parts of the SDF coalition oppose President Bashar Assad but have also fought against other rebels and the Western-backed opposition.

Intense clashes broke out Tuesday near the village of Kaljibrin as SDF fighters tried to reach it, according to the Observatory and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby. If SDF captures Kaljibrin, it would squeeze rebels in their stronghold of Mareh and the adjacent village of Sheikh Issa, which is also under attack by IS.

Meanwhile, in the city of Aleppo, insurgents repelled an attack by SDF fighters on the neighborhoods of Hullok and Bustan al-Basha, according to al-Halaby and the Aleppo Media Center. “They were trying to besiege (rebel-held parts) of the city of Aleppo but were forced out,” al-Halaby said.

In Damascus, the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met on Tuesday with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. In a brief statement to reporters after the meeting, de Mistura said the talks focused on “the issue of humanitarian aid and hindered access to all besieged areas, not only by the government but also by the opposition and ISIL,” another acronym that refers to the IS. The U.N. envoy arrived in the Syrian capital Monday for discussions on aid deliveries and how to resume peace talks in Geneva.

Indirect peace talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition collapsed earlier this month in Geneva after just two days, largely because of the government offensive in Aleppo.