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End attacks on Syrian hospitals, Toronto medical advocates tell governments

Local medical advocates are calling on Western governments to put a stop to the deadly bombings of medical facilities in war-torn Syria and declare them official war crimes after five such buildings were reportedly hit by missiles Monday amid a Russian-backed push of government troops toward Aleppo.

'Our governments have to do more than simply condemn these attacks,' advocates say after 5 people are killed

Toronto-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) executive director Stephen Cornish was among the medical advocates expressing concerns following news of the missile strikes in Idlib province and in the rebel-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border.

Local medical advocates are calling on Western governments to stop the deadly bombings of medical facilities in war-torn Syria and declare them official war crimes after five such buildings were reportedly hit by missiles Monday amid a Russian-backed push by government troops toward Aleppo.

Toronto-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) executive director Stephen Cornish was among the medical advocates expressing concerns following news of the missile strikes in Idlib province and in the rebel-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border.

The attack in Azaz destroyed a marked MSF facility, killing five patients and two staff. Another eight people are missing. Close to 50 civilians were also killed in the attacks, according to the United Nations. Cornish said those killed were likely Syrian nationals.

"Our governments have to do more than simply condemn these attacks. They have to ensure that they stop occurring," Cornish told CBC News on Monday.

'Everybody knows they're hospitals'

Cornish and his colleagues are among a group of advocates who believe Monday's strikes and others like them have intentionally targeted medical facilities. The MSF facility in Azaz had just been rebuilt in September 2015 following earlier attacks.

At least seven people were killed, and at least eight are missing and presumed dead in Monday's attack on an MSF facility in Syria. (MSF)

"Everybody knows they're hospitals," Cornish said. "At this stage, there's nothing left but the corpses of our patients and staff members under the rubble."

Syrian-Canadian medical doctor Jay Dahman, who has travelled extensively to the area, says the situation since he was last there is only worsening.

"It's gut-wrenching… They are deadly, accurate attacks nowadays and the destruction is way more than what it used to be," he said.

One measure the two would like to see implemented is a no-fly zone over hospitals to ensure the safety of patients and medical professionals.

"We forget that air strikes from 40,000 feet even with the best of intentions often come with much collateral damage, being civilian suffering and needless death and destruction," Cornish said.

'These are war crimes'

But both argue that Monday's casualties were deliberately targeted.

"These airstrikes in many cases are being carried out by government forces under the aegis of anti-terror measures or UN-sponsored measures whether they be in Yemen, Afghanistan or Syria," said Dahman.

Syrian-Canadian medical doctor Jay Dahman, who has travelled extensively to the area, says the situation has only worsened since he was last there.

Dahman is waiting to find out if any of those killed in the airstrikes in Syria were doctors that his group works with.

"There is no difference in the level of tragedy depending on what nationality," Cornish said.

"They are constant heroes day after day and they're being slaughtered," said Dahman. "They are not taking sides, they are treating people."

What's more, the apparent targeting is only adding fuel to the fire of the conflict as children who find themselves orphaned become easy child soldier recruits for ISIS and other organizations, he argues.

"In these cases, we're seeing what appears to be targeted death and destruction which can have no justification," Cornish said.

"[It] must be stopped if we are to continue calling ourselves humanitarians."

The MSF-supported hospital in Ma'arat Al Numan attacked and destroyed on Monday. The 30-bed hospital had 54 staff, two operating theatres, an outpatient department and an emergency room. (MSF)

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