U.S. chides Russia over civilian deaths in Syria

Boys stand at a ground damaged by what activists said were air strikes carried out yesterday by the Russian air force at a school in Jerjnaz town in Idlib. (Reuters)

The United States criticized Russia on Tuesday for killing hundreds of civilians in airstrikes in Syria and accused Moscow of undermining hopes for a cease-fire between Bashar Assad’s government and leading rebel groups.

The surprisingly sharp critique came as Washington banked on Moscow’s help to launch a Syrian peace process that would allow both countries to focus on defeating ISIS. Negotiations between representatives of Assad’s government and the opposition were expected to start next month, though hurdles remain.

Amid reports of indiscriminate killing by Russia, including the use of cluster bombs, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week to share his concerns. U.S. officials wouldn’t describe Lavrov’s response.

“The reports of Russian attacks on Syrian civilians are extremely disturbing,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday. Activist accounts suggest Russian strikes “killed hundreds of civilians, including first responders” and “hit medical facilities, schools and markets,” he said.

The campaign uprooted some 130,000 Syrians in October and the first half of November alone, Toner said.

An Amnesty International report last week cited evidence of Russian use of cluster munitions and unguided bombs in populated residential areas. The group denounced what it called Russia’s “shameful failure” to acknowledge civilian killings.

Russia immediately rejected the claims, calling them “clichés and fakes.”

While Toner didn’t endorse all of the findings directly, he said the U.S. has “seen a marked and troubling increase in reports of civilian casualties since Russia commenced its air campaign there” in late September.

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