More Syria health facilities hit so far in 2018 than all 2017: UN

A United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation military observer uses binoculars near the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel on May 11, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (AFP) - More Syrian health facilities were attacked in the first four months of 2018 than all of last year combined, the United Nations said Friday (May 18), slamming the escalation as "shocking".

They included four facilities hit after their locations were provided by the UN to the United States and Russia, which co-chair a humanitarian task force on Syria, in an effort to "de-conflict" the clinics.

"Syria is the worst place in modern history in terms of attacks against health care," said Panos Moumtzis, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

"Syria today accounts for nearly 70 per cent of all reported attacks on health facilities worldwide."

Speaking to reporters in Beirut, Moumtzis said 79 health facilities were hit from the start of 2018 until May 4, killing 89 people including medical staff and patients.

That was more than the entirety of 2017, when the UN said 73 medical facilities were targeted in attacks that left 73 people dead.

Nearly half of this year's attacks took place in Ghouta, a sprawling suburb of Damascus that Syria's government seized from rebels in mid-April after a blistering two-month offensive.

Another 37 attacks took place in the northwestern province of Idlib, where hospitals, blood banks, and ambulance stations have been hit this year.

The increase came despite a mechanism introduced by the UN earlier this year to try to reduce attacks on health facilities by informing warring parties of their locations.

- 'Not collateral damage' -

The GPS coordinates of 661 health facilities had been shared since the start of this year with Russia and the United States, said Moumtzis, adding the system "came pretty late" in a conflict infamous for its impact on health infrastructure.

"There were four specific incidents where despite the notification, an attack took place. Two were in Eastern Ghouta, and two were in northern Homs," he said.

According to the UN, the two sites hit in Ghouta were a hospital in the town of Arbin in late March and a children's hospital in the town of Douma in early April.

In Homs, two facilities in the town of Zafraniyeh were hit in late April. Troops also recaptured opposition-held villages in the northern part of Homs province this week.

"The assumption is not that these attacks have been on accident. If a health facility gets targeted, some of them multiple times, it's not collateral damage," said Moumtzis.

Reports of the incidents were submitted to the UN's humanitarian task force.

The US has denied being militarily active in either area and Russia is conducting investigations into the incidents, according to taskforce head Jan Egeland.

Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against the government but has since evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people and trigged a staggering humanitarian crisis.

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