Russians destroy new British-funded bakery for refugees

Gaziantep, Turkey: Russian warplanes have hit a bakery funded by the British government in northern Syria a few hours before it was due to start providing food for 18,000 people.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by Russian air strikes since the onset of the Kremlin's intervention in September. The targets of Russian bombs have included mosques, field hospitals and schools – all of which should enjoy protection under international humanitarian law.

The raid on the rebel-held village of Hazano in Idlib province is the first acknowledged occasion that a British-funded humanitarian site has been hit. Eight people were killed, including three children, during the air strike on January 20.

The attack took place about 3pm on the day the bakery was due to open. Russian warplanes fired two weapons into a residential apartment just a few metres from the bakery, killing two families inside and injuring more than 100 people.

The bakery was supposed to help feed 18,000 civilians in the area, including thousands of refugees who had fled from nearby combat zones.

Witnesses said they saw modern Russian warplanes – rather than Syrian regime aircraft – carry out the attack, according to the food program's Syrian field officer in Hazano.


"Everybody was asking about when [the bakery] was going to open," said the man, who can only be named as Hassan. "People were travelling a long way in dangerous conditions to get bread."

The Kremlin claims that its air strikes are targeting Islamic State, also known as Daesh. But IS is not present in or near Hazano.

"We don't know why it was targeted but this is a civilian area," Hassan said. "There is nothing here. There is no Daesh; they are 200 kilometres away."

Hazano is controlled by the Free Syrian Army, a non-Islamist rebel group. About 85 per cent of Russian air raids struck targets other than IS, according to a Foreign Office assessment of the first six weeks of the campaign.

Last month, an investigation by Amnesty International found that Russian warplanes had "directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target".

Hassan said Russian jets were routinely "targeting bakeries, schools and medical facilities". Russian air strikes were blamed in November for the destruction of another bakery in Idlib. A Turkish non-profit posted a video purporting to show the destruction of the building it said was used by aid workers to feed refugees.

A British Foreign Office spokesman confirmed the attack on the British-funded bakery. Hazano is one of 37 civilian communities in Syria receiving funding from the Department for International Development under a British program to develop civilian governance in some rebel-held areas.

The £17.7 million ($35 million) project provides more than 1.1 million Syrians with clean water, education and health facilities, bakeries and road-building.

The Foreign Office said there could not be complete certainty as to whether Russian or Syrian warplanes had carried out the raid on January 20, but Britain held the Kremlin responsible for a series of indiscriminate strikes.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond this month accused Russia of "deliberately attacking hospitals and schools and deliberately targeting rescue workers". Moscow should be "held to account for their breaches of international humanitarian law", he added.

The strike on a British-funded facility came as a number of rebel movements were invited to join peace talks in Geneva on Friday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is besieging 49 rebel-held areas across Syria, preventing the UN from delivering food to between 1 million and 2 million people. A member of one opposition block, the Syrian National Coalition, said it would not attend the talks unless the regime lifted these sieges.

Russia has also insisted that the main Kurdish armed group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), should be allowed to join the negotiations. But Turkey has threatened to boycott the meeting if the PYD is represented.

​Gareth Bayley, the British special representative for Syria, accused Russia and the Assad regime of jeopardising the peace talks by escalating their attack on non-IS rebel movements.

"By continuing to support the regime in its bombardment of the moderate opposition, Russia risks damaging the already fragile process of intra-Syrian negotiations," he said.

Telegraph, London

Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter

Follow FairfaxForeign on Facebook