Syrian air force 'purposely' targeted water supplies in Wadi Barada: UN

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UN human rights experts found that armed Syrian rebels did not poison water supplies for millions living in and around Damascus

Pro-Syrian government fighters are seen at the Ain Al Fijeh water pumping station on 29 January, 2017 (AFP)
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Tuesday 14 March 2017 14:47 UTC
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Syria's air force "purposely targeted" a spring outside Damascus in December, cutting off water supplies for 5.5 million people living in and around the city, the UN independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said on Tuesday.

The commission said it had found no evidence of deliberate contamination of the water supply or demolition by armed groups, as the Syrian government maintained at the time.

The rebel groups - who were in control the springs of the Wadi Barada valley, northwest of Damascus since 2012 - had faced a major offensive by Syrian government forces and their allies, despite a ceasefire deal. The rebels withdrew at the end of January.

The commission, led by Brazilian investigator Paulo Pinheiro, said there were no reports of people suffering from contact with contaminated water on or before 23 December, when the Syrian air force hit Ain Al Fijeh spring with at least two air strikes.

Using first-hand testimony and satellite images, the UN experts instead resolved that shrapnel from Syrian government air strikes on Wadi Barada had damaged the storages of fuel and chlorine, which then contaminated the water. 

"The bombing of Al Fijeh spring was carried out by the Syrian air force. A review of videos of the attack, photographs of the weapons used and damage to the facility, as well as pre- and post-strike satellite imagery confirm the damage was caused by at least two air strikes," UN investigators wrote in the report.  

The report also concluded that the attacks on the spring were grossly disproportionate and a war crime, having been an attack on "objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population".

"While the presence of armed group fighters at (the) spring constituted a military target, the extensive damage inflicted to the spring had a devastating impact on more than five million civilians in both government and opposition-controlled areas who were deprived of regular access to potable water for over one month," the commission's report said.

The report also concluded that the Syrian government and Russian air force had committed a war crime by striking a complex of schools in rebel-held Idlib last October, killing dozens of schoolchildren and teachers, something that both governments have denied. 

Other findings of the report had also documented the exclusive use of chlorine munitions by the Syrian government and pro-government forces, "causing extreme harm to civilians" living in those areas. 

The UN investigators also hit out at the launching of indiscriminate attacks by armed rebel groups and Islamic militants which had resulted in dozens of civilian casualties. 

The commission also documented the use of lethal chlorine gas on multiple occasions by government and pro-government forces in the suburbs of Damascus and Idlib province.

The report was released a day before the sixth anniversary of the Syrian civil war. Investigators from the UN's independent commission continue to be denied entry into Syria.

The report, which covered the period between 21 July 2016 and 28 February this year, came less than two weeks after the commission said that Syrian government aircraft deliberately bombed and strafed a humanitarian convoy, killing 14 aid workers, in September.