UN says Russian attack on Syrian market may be 'war crime'

Shelves remain standing amidst rubble on November 14, 2017 following air strike the previous day on northern rebel-held Syrian town of Atareb.

GENEVA - Russian forces were behind a deadly strike on a crowded market in Syria late last year, UN investigators said Tuesday, warning that the attack could amount to a "war crime".
The air strikes on a market in rebel-held Atareb in northern Syria last November 13 killed at least 84 people, including five children, and injured around 150 others, the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Syria said in its latest report.
"The commission confirmed the use of unguided blast weapons by Russian aircraft in a civilian populated area," commission chief Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva.
He pointed to a "large body of evidence", including interviews with witnesses and forensic analysis of photos, videos and images of weapons remnants, satellite images and impact analysis, to support the commission's findings.
The war crimes investigators acknowledged there was "no evidence to indicate that the ... attack deliberately targeted civilians or the Atareb market."
But they stressed that "the use of unguided bombs, including blast weapons, in a densely civilian populated area may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks."
The UN's Syria commission, set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the various sides of war crimes and in some cases crimes against humanity.
- Coalition strike killed 150 -
In their 15th report, published Tuesday, the investigators also accused a US-led coalition of breaching international humanitarian law with a deadly strike a year ago on a school near the Islamic State group's former stronghold of Raqa.
In that case however, they stopped short of evoking war crimes.
The coalition air raid last March 21, which hit a school being used as a temporary shelter for displaced families, killed at least 150 people, including more than 20 children.
The coalition claimed it was targeting IS jihadists, saying it believed there had been 30 fighters in the school, but Tuesday's report stressed there was no evidence that was the case.
"Information gathered by the commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIL fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIL," the report said, using another acronym for IS.
On the other hand, the investigators said "information that residents of the school were internally displaced families, including a large number of women and children ... should have been readily available to the coalition's targeting team."
The report therefore concluded that the coalition had "failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimise incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law."
It also slammed the "increasingly cynical" warfare used in the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, with Pinheiro accusing Damascus of "using starvation as a method of warfare" against the some 400,000 people trapped inside.
The investigators also spoke of allegations of chemical weapons use in the enclave, saying they had "reasonable grounds to believe that government forces used chemical weapons" in an attack on Harasta on November 18.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes in Syria's seven-year war, with no diplomatic solution in sight.