Destruction in Idlib on December 21, 2015 following reported Russian air strikes
Beirut (AFP) - Amnesty International said on Wednesday that nearly three months of Russian air raids in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians, many in targeted strikes that could constitute war crimes.
Some strikes "appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians," Amnesty Middle East and North Africa director Philip Luther said in a statement.
"Such attacks may amount to war crimes," he said, adding that it "is crucial that suspected violations are independently and impartially investigated".
The London-based rights group said there is "evidence suggesting that Russian authorities may have lied to cover up civilian damage to a mosque from one air strike and a field hospital in another".
There is also "evidence suggesting Russia's use of internationally banned cluster munitions and of unguided bombs in populated residential areas".
Russia angrily rejected the allegations.
"We examined this report," defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a briefing. "Once again there was nothing concrete or new that was published, only cliches and fakes that we have already repeatedly exposed."
"Amnesty International is confidently arguing that there were no military targets or militants in the areas that were allegedly hit with Russian strikes, but they cannot know this and have no way of checking," said Konashenkov.
He said the report raised empty allegations "without any sort of proof" and relied on the wrong sources.
"Even in the preface of the report it says that all the listed facts have been researched long-distance, with information received from telephone questioning of local so-called rights activists," he said.
- 'There was just chaos' -
Amnesty's report focuses on attacks in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo provinces between September and November, which it said killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters.
Amnesty noted that Russian authorities "have claimed that their armed forces are only striking 'terrorist' targets. After some attacks, they have responded to reports of civilian deaths, by denying they killed civilians; after others, they have simply stayed silent."
In one of the deadliest incidents, Amnesty said three missiles were fired at a busy market in the Idlib town of Ariha, killing 49 civilians.
Witnesses described how the bustling Sunday market became a scene of carnage in seconds, with local media activist Mohammed Qurabi al-Ghazal quoted as saying: "In just a few moments, people were screaming, the smell of burning was in the air and there was just chaos."
In another suspected Russian attack, at least 46 civilians, including 32 children and 11 women sheltering in the basement of a residential building, were killed in October in Ghantu, Homs, Amnesty said.
Video footage showed "no evidence of a military presence", and weapons experts said the nature of the destruction "indicated possible use of fuel-air explosives, a type of weapon particularly prone to indiscriminate effects when used in the vicinity of civilians".
In another raid on October 20, 13 people were killed when a field clinic was bombed in Sarmin, including a physiotherapist and a nurse.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the strike was carried out by Russia.
- 'Sweeping statements' -
Konashenkov said however that the building of the clinic was "completely intact".
He also denied Russia is using cluster bombs. "Russian aviation does not use them," he said. "There are no such munitions at the Russian base in Syria."
Amnesty International in a statement hit back at Russia's rejection of the report's findings.
"The Russian government cannot credibly brush away these detailed findings with a few sweeping statements," the group said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Observatory said Russian air strikes had killed 2,132 people since the campaign began at the end of September, including 710 civilians.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since it broke out in March 2011.