BEIRUT, April 22, (Agencies): Missiles struck a medical center in Syria’s northern rebel-held province, putting the facility built underground for protection out of service and killing a number of its staff, opposition activists said Saturday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that airstrikes had seriously damaged the medical center in Abdin village, in Idlib. The activist-run Aleppo Today media group also reported on the airstrikes.
But later the Observatory said missiles, likely fired from land, have also hit the underground center, penetrating it and causing serious damage to the underground facility. Airstrikes followed, the Observatory said.
International medical charities say Syrian government forces target hospitals, clinics and ambulances in opposition-held areas. To protect against the targeting, many opposition-area medical facilities have set up their operations underground.
The attack against the Abdin medical center caused fires and killed a person in the vicinity, the Observatory said. Rescue workers sifted through the rubble to find survivors, lifting nine medical staff as a search continued for four still missing.
The Aleppo Today group said three medical staff members were presumed killed.
According to Physicians for Human Rights, government and allied Russian forces have killed 727 medical workers in the course of the conflict.
The attacked medical center in Abdin is only a few kilometers (miles) north of Khan Sheikhoun, the town that was hit earlier this month with a chemical attack that left more than 80 people killed.
In Damascus Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his war on terrorism would not cease as long as there is any terrorist “desecrating the sanctity of the Syrian soil.”
He made the remarks as he presided over a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party.
Assad said the US strikes against a Syrian military base in the country’ center following the Idlib chemical attack were in response to the “terrorists’” defeat in the central city of Hama’s countryside, where they had launched an offensive. Assad’s government, which denied using chemical weapons in the Idlib attack, calls all armed opposition groups terrorists.
Syria still possesses chemical weapons, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Israel on Friday, warning against the banned munitions being used again.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Mattis also said that in recent days the Syrian Air Force has dispersed its combat aircraft. The implication is that Syria may be concerned about additional US strikes following the cruise missile attack earlier this month in retaliation for alleged Syrian use of sarin gas.
Mattis spoke alongside Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “There can be no doubt in the international community’s mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all,” said Mattis. He said he didn’t want to elaborate on the amounts Syria has in order to avoid revealing sources of intelligence.
“I can say authoritatively they have retained some, it’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically and they would be ill advised to try to use any again, we made that very clear with our strike,” he said.
Israeli defense officials said this week that Syria still has up to three tons of chemical weapons in its possession. It was the first specific intelligence assessment of President Bashar Assad’s weapons capabilities since a deadly chemical attack earlier this month.
Lieberman also refused to go into detail but said “We have 100 percent information that (the) Assad regime used chemical weapons against rebels.”
Assad has strongly denied he was behind the attack in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northern Idlib province, and has accused the opposition of trying to frame his government. Top Assad ally, Russia, has asserted a Syrian government airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons factory, causing the disaster.
In response to the April 4 attack, the United States fired 59 missiles at a Syrian air base it said was the launching pad for the attack.
Before meeting with Mattis in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that Israel is encouraged by the change of administrations in Washington.
“We sense a great change in the direction of American policy,” Netanyahu said. He referred to the US cruise missile strike in Syria as an important example of the new administration’s “forthright deeds” against the use of chemical weapons.
A few hours later sirens wailed on the Israeli held side of the Golan Heights warning of incoming rockets from Syria, the Israeli military said. It said three “projectiles” were fired and no injuries have been reported. The Israeli military later said it retaliated and “targeted the locations where the launching originated.”
Israel has been largely unaffected by the Syrian civil war raging next door, suffering mostly sporadic, spillover, incidents of fire. Israel has occasionally responded to fire with limited reprisals on Syrian positions.
It has also carried out a number of airstrikes on suspected weapon convoys it believed were destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Israel has warned against “game-changing” weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon from Syria, which supports the militant group. Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets on Israeli communities in the 2006 war, while Israel bombarded militant targets in southern Lebanon.
Last month Israel shot down an anti-aircraft missile fired at its planes as they struck a suspected Hezbollah weapons convoy.
Hezbollah and Iran, both bitter enemies of Israel, along with Russia have sent forces to support Assad.
Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal to avert US strikes following a chemical weapons attack in opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 that killed hundreds of people and sparked worldwide outrage.
Ahead of that disarmament, Assad’s government disclosed it had some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, including sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas.
The entire stockpile was said to have been dismantled and shipped out under international supervision in 2014 and destroyed. But doubts began to emerge soon afterward that not all such armaments or production facilities were declared and destroyed. There also is evidence that the Islamic State group and other insurgents have acquired chemical weapons.
Thousands of evacuees from besieged Syrian towns reached their destinations Friday after a delay that left some stuck for 48 hours at the site of a devastating bomb attack.
Villagers from government-held Fuaa and Kafraya arrived in Aleppo province, travelling on 45 buses, after waiting two days at a marshalling point in rebel-held Rashidin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They had waited under the guard of dozens of rebels seeking to head off another attack.
All 11 buses evacuating civilians and fighters from Zabadani and two other rebel-held areas around Damascus meanwhile crossed into opposition-held Idlib province, the Britain-based Observatory said.
A total of 3,000 evacuees left their homes in Fuaa and Kafraya at dawn on Wednesday as part of a deal under which residents and fighters are also being evacuated from rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces.
But the evacuees were forced to spend two nights on buses at the marshalling area after last-minute disagreement over the release of prisoners held by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“After all the buses have left, 750 prisoners will be freed. God willing, this question will be resolved,” Abu Obeida, a rebel official overseeing the operation, told AFP in Rashidin.
The head of the Observatory said a first batch of 50 prisoners, including at least 15 women, were released from regime prisons and arrived in Rashidin.
Rami Abdel Rahman said the remainder would be freed, in groups, over the next 24 hours and given the choice to stay in regime-controlled areas or head to rebel-held territory.
The evacuations began last week but were delayed after Saturday’s suicide car bombing killed 150 people, 72 of them children, at the transit point in Rashidin.
The toll in the bombing had previously been given as 126, but the Observatory on Friday said more people wounded in the attack had died.
Saturday’s attack was one of the deadliest since Syria’s six-year civil war began, and was widely denounced for targeting civilians.
“Someone pretending even to distribute aid and attracting the children produced that horrific explosion,” UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday.
Witnesses said a vehicle distributing bags of crisps to children exploded near the buses transporting the evacuees.
In an interview with Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency published on Friday, Assad blamed the former al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Fateh al-Sham Front.
“It was Jabhat al-Nusra, they haven’t hidden it from the very start, and I think that everyone agrees that it was Nusra,” he said, using the group’s former name.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was condemned by Syria’s political opposition and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.
The evacuations mark the end of the first stage of a deal brokered by regime ally Iran and Qatar, a longtime supporter of Syrian rebel groups.
The deal also involved the release of a Qatari hunting party kidnapped in southern Iraq in 2015, according to sources in Baghdad.
All 26 of the hunters — believed to include prominent members of the Qatari royal family — have been freed and were being handed over to a Qatari delegation in Baghdad on Friday, a senior Iraqi official told AFP.
There was never any claim for the kidnapping of the hunters who were seized in a Shiite area of Iraq and widely believed to have been abducted by militias with close ties to Tehran.
When the current phase of Syrian evacuations is complete, a total of 8,000 people should have left Fuaa and Kafraya in exchange for 2,500 civilians and rebels from opposition areas.
A second phase is due to begin in June.
Assad’s regime has presented evacuation deals as the best way to end Syria’s war, which has killed more than 320,000 people and forced more than half the population from their homes.
The opposition says the evacuations amount to forced relocation after years of bombardment and siege.
The UN is not involved, and the head of its humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, said such deals were “spurred by military logic not by humanitarian principles”.