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World

Pro-Regime Attacks Kill Civilians At Syrian Hospitals

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There were already severe doubts about prospects for a pause in the fighting in Syria that major powers announced last week. Today, airstrikes and missile attacks on hospitals and clinics made those prospects even dimmer. At least 26 people were killed. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, at least one of the attacks was in an area where the Syrian regime or its Russian backers are known to be conducting airstrikes.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: A video uploaded online shows volunteers gathering at a three-story hospital in the province of Idlib that was leveled by an airstrike this morning. They're trying to dig out survivors. The hospital was supported by Doctors Without Borders, which says seven people were killed and eight are missing, presumed dead. A clinic and another hospital were also hit by airstrikes in the province. These were all in areas controlled by rebel forces. This means that either the Syrian air force or its Russian allies were almost certainly responsible. NPR reached local council member Naser Hezaber by Skype who was in that second hospital.

NASER HEZABER: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He had seen the facility, once a state-run hospital, hit by a first airstrike, and rushed to see if people were hurt.

HEZABER: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "And when I got there, the plane returned and bombed again," Hezaber says. The sound was unbelievable. The bomb landed just 50 yards away from him. The man next to him was wounded. Activists tell us four people were killed.

HEZABER: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says the targeting of civilians has become very methodical. I speak with Sam Taylor from Doctors Without Borders, who tells me this is the fifth time a medical facility supported by the organization has been hit in Syria this year. And he thinks it was targeted.

SAM TAYLOR: We believe some facilities are targeted because we had two separate attacks on a very specific location.

FORDHAM: Taylor stresses it's hard to say for sure whether all attacks on civilian targets are deliberate, but they do seem to be increasing. Monitoring groups say the Syrian military has targeted health facilities for years in its attacks on opposition areas. Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights has documented them.

WIDNEY BROWN: So at this point, since the beginning of the war, we substantiated literally hundreds - several hundred attacks on hospitals. But the last year, 2015, was the worst by far.

FORDHAM: She says 2015 was the worst year in part because that's when Russia began its air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad, hitting 10 hospitals in their first two months of bombing. Today's attacks come less than a week after international leaders announced a plan for a cessation of hostilities in Syria. When I reached Dr. Hazem Rihawi, whose Syrian American Medical Society supports several of the facilities attacked, he says he sees little reason to pay attention to the peace talks.

HAZEM RIHAWI: Today's attacks are really a breach of what has been approved on.

FORDHAM: What he's calling for is simple, he says.

RIHAWI: What we are - keep asking is that hospitals should be spared out of it. All hospitals are protected by the Geneva Conventions.

FORDHAM: On the ground, people say there's a paradox. In war, you can claim protected status as a hospital by making it visible, putting a red cross and the roof or sharing your coordinates with the enemy. But in Syria, everyone believes that if they do that, it will actually make them more likely to become a target. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.