(New York) – Apparent Russian airstrikes on Talbiseh in northern Homs that killed at least 17 civilians should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. Two local media activists and two first responders said that the September 30, 2015 strikes hit a residential part of town at a distance from any apparent military targets and that no combatants were killed in the strike.
Russia announced the beginning of its airstrikes in Syria on September 30.
In addition to the strike on Talbiseh, local groups operating in northern Homs said that jets that they believed were Russian conducted strikes on the neighboring towns of Za`faraneh and Rastan, killing another reported 17 civilians. Northern Homs is controlled by various armed groups opposed to the government, including some groups affiliated with al-Nusra Front. Human Rights Watch is still gathering information about these two additional strikes. According to a report by Russia 24, a state-owned news channel, Talbiseh was one of several towns in Homs struck by Russian forces on September 30.
“Now Syrian civilians may have to worry about Russian attacks even when they are in neighborhoods without apparent military targets,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Russia’s priority should be to protect civilians in Syria and take all possible precautions to avoid harming them.”
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that airstrikes hit the town of Talbiseh at about 10:30 a.m. on the day the Russians announced their offensive. A local teacher said a school and a post office were struck, killing civilians and causing severe damage. The post office building was not being used as a post office, but for baking and distributing bread in an area where the conflict has caused a food shortage, the local residents said.
Four local activists and first responders said that there were no military targets – such as fighters, bases, or weapons stocks – near the targeted area and that the closest front line was at least two kilometers away.
The three-story post office building was completely destroyed, residents said. Mostafa Wakeel, the head of the committee organizing the bread production, died in the strike.
Two first responders said that 17 civilians were killed, including at least 3 children and 4 women, and 72 wounded. They provided Human Rights Watch with a list of the dead. Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos taken by local activists showing four bodies in the aftermath of the attack.
“There were a lot of corpses,” said the head of Homs Civil Defense, Abdel Men`em Sateef:
The post office was completely destroyed. There were many victims, people dead. We tried to first help the victims who were still alive, the ones we could save. I saw a leg, just a leg. A man of 50 was wandering around asking about his son. One of our colleagues from the civil defense died while rescuing the victims. I personally carried nine bodies.
The Syria Civil Defense in Homs identified the rescuer who died as Abdul Lateef Duhaik, 18.
Russian officials did not issue any specific comments regarding the strike on Talbiseh. During a media briefing about the results of the first day of air operations, the official representative of the Russian Defense Ministry said, “In the vicinity of Talbiseh, the headquarters of terrorist groups of the same organization [ISIS] and the ammunition depot were destroyed by SU-24 hits.”
Two local activists told Human Rights Watch that they were certain that the strikes that killed civilians in Talbiseh were carried out by Russian planes. They said that the planes launched their weapons from higher altitudes than Syrian planes usually do and that they had been told by spotters who monitor communications that they heard Russian being used in communications with the cockpit of the jets flying over the area.
Under the laws of war all parties to armed conflicts are required to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and direct attacks only at combatants. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. All parties must take all feasible precautions to avoid, and minimize, loss of civilian life and injury to civilians.
The strikes on Talbiseh are not the only reported Russian strikes that have killed civilians in Northern Homs on September 30. Local media activists and first responders also said that airstrikes hit the neighboring town of Za`faraneh at about 8:30 a.m. The local Syria Civil Defense reported that the Za`faraneh airstrikes killed 8 civilians and injured 36.
Airstrikes locally believed to be Russian also hit the town of Rastan in northern Homs, killing nine civilians according to the local Syria Civil Defense. Human Rights Watch is still conducting inquiries about these two attacks.
The Russian authorities should investigate credible allegations of violations of the laws of war and publish their findings, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should also take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians in future attacks.
“Reports of civilian casualties in its first strikes raise concerns that Russia is not taking sufficient precautions to avoid civilian casualties in Syria,” Houry said. “After enduring so much, the last thing Syrians need would be more indiscriminate attacks from the air.”