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Doctors feel 'hopeless' after air strikes hit hospital in rebel-held Idlib

Russia's defence ministry denied that its forces had struck a hospital and bakery in Ariha
Civil defence workers desperately try to quell flames caused by a suspected Russian air strike (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Medical workers describe a "hopeless" scene after suspected Russian air strikes hit a civilian area in northwest Syria as President Bashar al-Assad's forces ramp up a months-long ground campaign to take control of rebel-held Idlib, the last major opposition bastion in the country.

The suspected Russian air strikes killed at least 10 civilians and wounded 70 others near a bakery and medical clinic in Ariha, a town in Idlib province, according to medical workers and civil defence officials.

Images posted online showed the hospital completely destroyed and burning from the strikes which struck the medical facilities on Wednesday night. 

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian warplanes carried out the attack but Russia's defence ministry denied responsibility.

"Russia's aviation did not carry out any combat tasks in this area of Syria," it said in a statement. 

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Walid Aslan, the local director of the civil defence unit in Ariha, said the air strikes began at 10:30pm on Wednesday and lasted for fifteen minutes.

"A Russian warplane fired three high explosive vacuum guided missiles, targeting Al-Shami hospital, and destroyed seven residential buildings in the vicinity of the medical facility," Aslan told Middle East Eye. 

"We had to pull children out of the rubble and work quickly before the area was struck again."

Aslan said that rescue workers managed to find one woman alive amidst the rubble. Other rescue workers were frantically trying to put out the flames caused by the air strike on the residential areas. 

Idlib offensive
Al-Shami hospital served the entire population in the Ariha district (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Medical workers at Al-Shami hospital believe that the medical facility was "directly targeted" by the suspected Russian missiles.

Doctor Zuhair al-Qirat, a senior official at Al-Shami hospital, said the facility served the whole population in the Ariha district and contained several departments. 

He told MEE that the coordinates for the hospital had been shared with the United Nations which were then given to Russia to prevent it from being targeted by air strikes. 

"I was in the emergency room when the first air strike took place. My colleagues and I suffered minor injuries from the first air strike," Qirat told MEE.

"We tried to hide in the residential buildings close to the hospital when the first air strike hit. My colleague Dr Zakwan Tamaa was still inside when the second air strike hit the hospital and suffered serious injuries."

Qirat said they found charred bodies in the rubble. 

Doctor Tayseer, a surgeon at the hospital, said there were many women and children among the casualties. He also witnessed Tamaa getting wounded by the strike.

"The first attack was near the hospital and shattered the windows and doors. Some walls crumbled to the ground. Civilians around the hospital started screaming for help and some people went out to help them," said Tayseer, using only his first name.

"Dr Tamaa, who administers anaesthesia, was struck in the head, stomach and chest in the second air strike. We don't think he is doing well and it feels very hopeless at the moment."

Ground offensive

Government forces have ramped up their offensive in areas near Maarat al-Numan after it took control of the strategic rebel-held town in the Idlib province.

Aziz Mohammed, an activist from Mardikh, near Maaret al-Numan, said there has not been any major ground development in the area on Thursday. 

"Government forces are still stationed at the town of Maar Dabsa, nine kilometres south of Saraqeb, but the bombardment has not let up," Mohammed told MEE.

The state-run news agency SANA said intense clashes took place in Maar Dabsa and Khan al-Subul as government forces chased rebel fighters who have fled Maaret al-Numan.

The news agency said the army continued advancing on the Saraqeb and Maaret al-Numan axis.

“The government’s artillery has been targeting the main road leading to Saraqeb,” said Obeida al-Fadel, who runs Idlib Media Centre.

Saraqeb is located east of Idlib and is the third-largest city adjacent to the strategic M5 highway, a major artery that runs between government-held cities and sought by the government.

“Civilians are put in a difficult position. They don’t know where and how to flee and save themselves from the attacks,” he told MEE.

Saraqeb has been almost empty of civilians, but Fadel said the remaining families, 60 in total, were evacuated by the civil defence, or White Helmets, on Thursday.

Despite several ceasefire agreements between Russia and rebel backer Turkey, government forces have steadily taken areas in the south of the opposition enclave.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the areas targeted by the government’s advance into the region in recent weeks towards the Turkish border further north.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Moscow on Wednesday of "not honouring these agreements" and said Ankara is losing patience with the military assault in Idlib.

Government forces have retaken around 27 towns and villages from their rivals in southern Idlib since 24 January, according to AFP.

More than 388,000 civilians have been displaced in the northwest since December, the United Nations said.

- Additional reporting by Nadda Osman in London. 

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