Humanitarian group stops sharing GPS coordinates of hospitals in Syria

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After several deadly attacks on medical facilities, the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will no longer share GPS coordinates on hospital locations with Russian and Syrian officials.

“Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed,” Joanne Liu, MSF International president, told reporters in Geneva. “Let me be clear: attacks on civilians and hospitals must stop. The normalization of such attacks is intolerable.”

Directors of MSF Isabelle Defourny, Joanne Liu and Raquel Ayora deplored the attacks on hospital sites in Syria. /Martial Trezzini/EPA
Directors of MSF, from left, Isabelle Defourny, Joanne Liu and Raquel Ayora deplored the attacks on hospital sites in Syria. /Martial Trezzini/EPA

Russian airstrikes hit an MSF-supported hospital in northern Syria earlier this week, killing 11 people. The hospital was located in Idlib province, which observers say is entirely outside of Syrian government control and where only the Russian and Syrian air forces are carrying out raids.

In another attack, a hospital in the rebel-held town of Azaz was destroyed by what Turkey said was a ballistic missile fired by Russia.

There have been 14 attacks on hospitals in 2016, contradicting claims by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that Russian forces are not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure.

“Over the past 15 days there has been a focus on northern Aleppo and almost all the hospitals in the area are out of service because they have been directly targeted,” said Mustafa Ajjaj, who runs a hospital in the town of Kafr Hamra in the area.

Syrian forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have launched a major offensive on Aleppo aimed at severing rebel supply lines. The assault has resulted in tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the Turkish border.

“They are directly targeting civilians and are completely focused on hospitals,” Ajjaj said. “In the beginning we thought it was simply indiscriminate, but there is repeated targeting of hospitals.

“There is great danger in giving the [GPS] locations because the targeting of the hospitals is definite and clear and systematic.”

Members of aid groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the UK’s Guardian that the Bashar Assad government has “explicitly threatened to bomb a hospital” in a besieged suburb of Damascus if it continues to admit emergency cases.

“Since 2011 during the demonstration time, medical activities that are not under their control are considered by the government of Syria as illegal and consequently as legitimate targets,” one official said.

“This decision explains the repeated threat, arrest, torture and killing of doctors … and their direct families in addition to the systematic targeting of networks in charge of supplying underground medical activities in besieged zones.”

“Given the number of hospitals that have been bombed since the war started, they do not think [giving GPS coordinates] is going to protect them, rather the opposite,” another official said.

Ajjaj said Aleppo now lacks a hospital capable of conducting surgical procedures and the medical facilities that haven’t been completely destroyed are only able to offer first aid before sending the injured to the Turkish border.