UNITED NATIONS - U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced Thursday that he is setting up an internal inquiry into attacks in a de-escalation zone in northwest Syria, where numerous hospitals have been targeted in recent months.
"I believe that this inquiry can produce an important result," Guterres told reporters. "I can guarantee that everything will be done to make sure that this board of inquiry acts with full objectivity, not to prove anything, but to simply say what the truth is."
Since the end of April, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with support from Russian aircraft, has stepped up bombing and shelling in the de-escalation zone in Idlib governorate.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this week that satellite imagery shows 17 villages have been severely damaged and emptied since the military escalation began. He said at least 450 civilians have been killed, including more than 100 in the last two weeks alone, and about 440,000 people have been displaced.
There has also been a surge in the numbers of hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure that have been targeted in airstrikes in Idlib.
The nongovernmental group Physicians for Human Rights told the U.N. that it has so far confirmed 16 of 46 reports of attacks on health care facilities since April 29.
Russia has called the accusations "a lie," while Damascus said the allegations are false because it considers several of the facilities it has struck to have been taken over by terrorist groups and no longer functioning medical facilities.
On Thursday, Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said Moscow was "amazed" at the secretary-general's decision to investigate the allegations.
"We doubt very much that this is for the sake of investigation; this is for the sake of blaming Syria and Russia for the things we do not do," Polyanskiy said in response to reporters' questions.
Ten of the 15 countries on the U.N. Security Council asked Guterres to investigate the attacks, including Britain. Ambassador Karen Pierce, who welcomed the creation of the board of inquiry, saying it is "a good first step."
"I fully respect the right of the Russian Federation to disagree with me, as I also respect the position of 10 other members of the Security Council that had the opposite opinion," Guterres said when asked about Moscow's criticism.
The board will investigate the incidents that have taken place in the Idlib de-escalation zone since it was established under an agreement between Russia and Turkey in September 2018, and report back to the secretary-general.
"The inquiry should determine whether Russia and Syria have used coordinates provided by the U.N. to target hospitals," said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. "To be effective, the investigators should attribute responsibility for any war crimes and make their report public."
The board's investigation will cover "destruction of or damage to facilities on the deconfliction list and U.N.-supported facilities in the area," the U.N. said. The board members' names have not been announced.
The secretary-general urged all parties to cooperate with the investigation.