Russian airstrikes targeting Syrian civilians: Amnesty
Moscow denies using cluster bombs; general says report filled with 'clichés and fakes'
The three missiles fired on a public market in the northern Syrian town of Ariha took the morning shoppers by surprise. In a few moments, the main street, packed with people buying and selling fruit and vegetables, turned into a scene of carnage with burning cars and the wounded screaming in terror.
At least 34 civilians were killed in the Nov. 29 attack — one in a growing number of suspected Russian attacks that Syrian opposition and rights activists say have killed civilians and caused massive destruction to residential areas across the country since Moscow formally joined the conflict nearly three months ago.
Russian officials have repeatedly rejected the accusations while residents and most opposition activists inside Syria acknowledge they have no way of categorically distinguishing whether planes that carry out a specific attack are operated by Russians or Syrians.
But human rights group say the pattern of attacks suggests Russia is flouting international humanitarian law and that it may even amount to war crimes.
In a new report released Monday, Amnesty International says it has also documented evidence suggesting Russia used cluster munitions and unguided bombs in populated residential areas since Moscow formally joined the conflict Sept. 30. The London-based watchdog denounced Moscow's "shameful failure" to acknowledge civilian killings.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov rejected Amnesty's claims as "clichés and fakes," accusing the group of relying on activists' claims that could not be checked or proven.
He particularly criticized the group's claim that the Russian strikes targeted areas where there were no militants, saying Amnesty had no way of knowing that.
"Jihadis in Syria operate in highly mobile units, using Toyota pickup trucks with high-caliber weapons mounted on them," he said. "Each of those vehicles is considered a tactical unit and represents a legitimate military target."
Cluster munitions are by nature indiscriminate and often leave unexploded bomblets on the ground, which can maim and kill civilians long after the cessation of hostilities.
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The report focuses on six attacks in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo provinces between September and November which it says killed at least 200 civilians. It denounced Russia's "shameful failure" to acknowledge civilian killings.
"Some Russian airstrikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program. "Such attacks may amount to war crimes," he said.
The accusations follow a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch last week which said cluster munitions were used on at least 20 occasions since Syria and Russia began their joint offensive on Sept. 30.
Russian officials have repeatedly rejected such accusations, and residents and opposition activists inside Syria acknowledge they have no way of knowing for sure whether the attacks are carried out by Russia or the Syrian military.
When asked Monday about allegations that Russia is using cluster bombs, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian military in Syria operates in line with international law.
"Russia is conducting its operation in strict conformity with principles and norms of the international law, including those sections of the international law that regulate using and bans on using one or another type of weapons," Peskov told reporters.
Russia says its airstrikes are aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and other "terrorists," but Western officials and Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIS does not have a strong presence.