Russian airstrikes in Syria have indiscriminately killed hundreds of civilians and may constitute a war crime, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.
The human rights organization interviewed dozens of witnesses and activists, and reviewed video clips and images of six attacks and their aftermath, concluding that the Kremlin's claims it has only attacked "terrorist" targets are false.
Its research indicates what it says are "serious failings" by Russia to adhere to international law.
"The Russian armed forces appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military objective and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians," it said in a report. "In others, they seem to have attacked military objectives and civilian objects without distinction, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians when striking military targets. Such attacks may constitute war crimes."
The report includes evidence that Amnesty says suggests Russian authorities may have lied to cover up civilian damage to a mosque from one airstrike and a field hospital in another. It also documents evidence suggesting that Russia used internationally banned cluster munitions and unguided bombs in densely populated residential areas.
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One documented attack took place a fruit and veg market in Ariha, Idlib governorate, that was "bustling with people" when it was hit by three missiles on November 29, killing 49 civilians and injuring many others. It turned into a "scene of carnage," said Amnesty.
"In just a few moments, people were screaming, the smell of burning was in the air and there was just chaos. There was a primary school nearby, and children were running out absolutely terrified… There were bodies everywhere, decapitated and mutilated," Mohammed Qurabi al-Ghazal, a local media activist, told the rights group.
'Her children were literally in bags. To this day, I cannot get over it'
He saw one woman sitting and crying beside 40 bodies lined up in a row. She had lost her husband and three children. "Her children were literally in bags. To this day, I cannot get over it," he said.
"According to further testimony and audiovisual material, as well as the research of Syrian human rights defenders, there were no military targets in the vicinity," said the report.
Another suspected Russian attack killed at least 32 children and 11 women who were taking shelter in the basement of a residential building in Homs.
"Weapons experts who analyzed images of the attack said the nature of the destruction indicated possible use of fuel-air explosives (also known as "vacuum bombs"), a type of weapon particularly prone to indiscriminate effects when used in the vicinity of civilians," said Amnesty.
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Russia started its campaign of airstrikes against militants in Syria on September 30, saying it wanted to help the Kremlin's main Middle Eastern ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, defeat the Islamic State and other militant groups.
It has repeatedly and forcefully denied targeting civilians, saying it takes great care to avoid bombing residential areas.
When asked by Reuters to comment on the Amnesty allegations, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had no immediate comment, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said it first needed to study the report before giving any official reaction.
Amnesty, whose charges echoed those of some Syrian observers, said Russian airstrikes had killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters from September to November of this year.
"It is crucial that suspected violations [of international law] are independently and impartially investigated," said Philip Luther, Director of the Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program.
Reuters contributed to this report.