BY BASSEM MROUE and NATALIYA VASILYEVA
BEIRUT (AP) — Intensified fighting in Syria in recent weeks has damaged more hospitals, with at least 10 medical facilities hit over the past 10 days and hundreds of thousands of people cut off from health care, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.
According to an ICRC statement, the violence has been the worst the war-torn country has seen since government forces captured the rebel-held eastern part of the city of Aleppo last December. ICRC said it’s alarmed by reports of hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of hospitals and schools.
“We have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties,” said Marianne Gasser, head of ICRC’s delegation in Syria.
Fighting has been especially heavy in recent weeks in central, northern and eastern Syria between Russian-backed government forces and rival insurgent groups. The violence is also taking place in de-escalation zones that are part of a deal reached in the Kazakh capital of Astana between Iran, Turkey and Russia.
With swelling numbers of civilians fleeing military operations, some camps around the northern province of Raqqa and in the eastern region of Deir el-Zour are receiving over 1,000 women, children and men every day, the statement said.
Syrian troops and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have been gaining ground from the Islamic State group in both provinces over the past months. Their separate but simultaneous attacks have led thousands of people to flee IS-held areas that have come under intense airstrikes by Russian warplanes and those of the U.S.-led coalition.
On Wednesday, government forces kicked out IS fighters form the central province of Hama, ending a three-year presence of the extremists in the central region that has a religiously mixed population.
The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said its submarines fired 10 cruise missiles on Thursday at Islamic State positions outside the eastern Syrian town of Mayadeen, one of the last major IS strongholds in the country.
Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and has helped government troops gain significant ground from opposition fighters and militant groups.
The ministry’s spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement the Kalibr missiles killed an unspecified number of IS fighters and destroyed major ammunition depots and command posts. The missiles were launched from the Veliky Novgorod and the Kolpino submarines in the Mediterranean Sea, Konashenkov said.
Syrian troops with the help of Russian air cover have been closing in on Mayadeen, which has become a main IS hub for militants and the group’s leaders after its former strongholds of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour have come under attack.
Russia’s military also said the leader of an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria who was reportedly wounded in a Russian airstrike this week had fallen into a coma. The military offered no evidence on the purported condition of Abu Mohammed al-Golani.
Russian jets bombed positions of the militant group, the Levant Liberation Committee, in the northwestern province of Idlib for two days and on Wednesday killed seven militant commanders and dozens of fighters at a militant-controlled air base, the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday. At the time, the ministry quoted military intelligence as saying that al-Golani had been critically wounded.
However, the al-Qaida-linked group denied its leader had been wounded, saying he was in excellent health and carrying on his tasks as usual.
Moscow blames the al-Qaida-linked group for an attack on Russian military police near Idlib last month. Three Russian troops were wounded after the militants encircled 29 Russian military officers for several hours during an insurgent offensive. The Russian troops repelled the attack with the help of local tribes.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow.
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