(Azaz) – A Syrian government fighter jet bombed a residential neighborhood, killing more than 40 civilians and wounding at least 100 others in the town of Azaz, including many women and children, Human Rights Watch said today after visiting the town. In the attack on August 15, 2012, at least two bombs destroyed an entire block of houses in the al-Hara al-Kablie neighborhood of Azaz, in Syria’s northern Aleppo province.
Human Rights Watch investigated the site of the bombing two hours after the attack and interviewed witnesses, victims, medical personnel, and relatives of those killed.
“This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block,” said Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life.”
Azaz residents told Human Rights Watch that, at around 3 p.m., they saw a fighter jet drop at least two bombs on the residential area. Within seconds, dozens of houses in an area of approximately 70-by-70 meters – more than half a football field – were flattened. Houses on the surrounding streets were significantly damaged, with collapsed walls and ceilings. On the streets around the bombed area, windows were broken and some walls had collapsed.
Two opposition Free Syrian Army facilities in the vicinity of the attack might have been targets of the Syrian aircraft, Human Rights Watch said. One was the headquarters of the local Free Syrian Army brigade, in the former building of the Baath party, two streets away from the block that was hit. The other was a detention facility where the Free Syrian Army held “security detainees” – government military personnel and members of pro-government shabeeha militia. Neither of these facilities was damaged in the attack.
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Rescuers used two bulldozers to retrieve the dead and wounded from the ruins. By 7 p.m., medical personnel at the scene said they had recovered 25 bodies, and were looking for more in the rubble. A man helping to bury the bodies said that by midnight 33 people had been buried in Azaz.
The exact number of victims is difficult to verify. Most of the wounded were transported to hospitals across the nearby Turkish border. A hospital volunteer in the Turkish town of Kilis, about 20 kilometers north of Azaz, told Human Rights Watch that 61 wounded people from Azaz had been brought to the hospital, and another 13 people had died either on the way to Kilis or shortly after arrival, among them seven men, two women and four children. At least another 16 severely wounded people were brought to a hospital in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, about 80 kilometers from Azaz, a doctor in that hospital told Human Rights Watch.
One Azaz resident, “Ahmed,” told Human Rights Watch that the bombing had killed at least 12 members of his family in their home. He believed that four other family members were still under the ruins. He said:
I was about 100 meters away from the house when I saw the airplane and heard the sound of the bombing and destruction. My three brothers lived here. I buried 12 of my family members today, including my father, my mother, and my sister – my brother’s wife as well. Walid, my brother, was cut into pieces. We didn’t recognize him at first. We buried my brothers’ children also. The youngest was 40 days old.
“Ali” was weeping on the ruins of his house. He told Human Rights Watch:
I was on the roof, making tomato soup, when I suddenly heard the plane. I heard several loud bangs, and was thrown to the floor. When I got up, I saw my wife who was injured – hit in the chest by shrapnel or debris. She was taken to the hospital – I still do not know what happened to her.
“Ayman” told Human Rights Watch:
My brother, sister and my father’s wife were killed today. What was Bashar al-Assad looking for in this area? …There were no weapons here. I live far away from my family, but when I heard the sounds of the explosion I came here and saw all this destruction. I was here when they removed the bodies of my family from under the rubble. Two of my killed relatives were 9 and 6 years old.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to all Syrian government and armed opposition forces in Syria. The laws of war prohibit direct attacks on civilians. Homes, apartments, and other civilian structures are also to be protected from attack, unless they are being used for military purposes. Where there is doubt about whether a target is military or civilian, it must be presumed to be civilian.
The laws of war also prohibit attacks that strike military targets and civilians indiscriminately, such as those that are not directedat a specific military target.Attacks are also prohibited that may be expected to cause incidental civilian loss that would be disproportionate to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.
Military commanders must choose the means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons used are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, then they should not be deployed. Weapons, such as aerial bombs with a large blast radius may be considered indiscriminate when used in populated areas.
The laws of war do not prohibit fighting in urban areas, although the presence of many civilians places greater obligations on all warring parties to take steps to minimize harm to civilians. All forces need to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population, and take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military targets and not civilians or civilian objects, and giving "effective advance warning" of attacks when circumstances permit.
All forces must also avoid deploying near densely populated areas, and strive to remove civilians from the vicinity of their forces. At the same time, attacking forces are not relieved from their obligation to take into account the risk to civilians simply because they consider the defending forces responsible for locating military targets within populated areas.
Governments have an obligation to investigate allegations of serious laws-of-war violations by their military forces. Those committed with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes. Governments are obligated to identify and prosecute the individuals responsible for war crimes according to international fair-trial standards.
Human Rights Watch called on United Nations Security Council members to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and targeted sanctions on government officials responsible for abuses, and refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court.
“Syrian forces in northern Aleppo are using heavy artillery and aerial bombing in populated areas that kill and maim civilians every day,” Neistat said. “All Security Council members should show that protection of civilians means more than empty words.”