* Air strikes hit underground cave hospital near Hama
* Staff temporarily shuts down hospital and evacuates
* Medical workers accuse government of using bunker-busting
By Ellen Francis
BEIRUT, Oct 3 Even entombing the hospital under
solid rock tunnelled beneath a mountain was not enough to
protect it from bombs dropped by Syria's government or its
Russian allies, medical staff say.
Opposition groups built the "central cave hospital" north of
Hama to withstand bombardment, tunnelling into a mountain in
northwestern Syria for more than a year to bury it below 17
metres of rock.
To some degree it worked: when Russian or Syrian government
warplanes bombed it in two waves of air strikes on Sunday,
nobody inside the cave was seriously hurt.
But massive bombs wrecked the emergency ward near the
entrance, caved in interior ceilings, crumbled cement walls and
destroyed generators, water tanks and medical equipment,
knocking the underground hospital out of service.
"The mountainous rock, praise God, did not collapse at all,"
hospital head Abdallah Darwish told Reuters from the area.
Western countries including the United States say Syria's
government and its Russian allies are guilty of war crimes for
deliberately targeting civilians, aid deliveries and hospitals
during a three week escalation of the civil war.
Moscow and Damascus say they target only militants and deny
that they have hit hospitals, although several have been hit
during the latest bombing campaign, which began after a
ceasefire collapsed in September.
According to Darwish, two waves of strikes hit the hospital.
The first attack caused a huge blast at the front entrance of
the hospital before another big bomb fell nearby, causing staff
to panic, Darwish said.
Since launching their latest intensified air campaign, the
Russian and Syrian forces have been using much more powerful
"bunker-buster" bombs, which residents of opposition-held areas
say have the force to bring down entire buildings.
At least one of the bombs dropped on the cave hospital
appeared to be a bunker buster because of the force of the
blast, said Ahmad al-Dbis, of the Union of Medical Care and
Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a coalition of international aid
agencies which funds hospitals in Syria including this one.
Staff reported the blast caused "something like an earthquake",
Photos showed long cracks around the rocky, dome-shaped
ceiling, and hospital rooms covered in the rubble of collapsing
"Nothing is safe anymore when these kinds of weapons are
used," al-Dbis said.
"ON THE GROUND AND UNDERGROUND"
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on
Monday that accusations that Moscow had struck hospitals were
"groundless". He said militants were using civilians and
"so-called hospitals" as human shields, setting up medical
facilities in cities without correctly marking them.
The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a
message seeking comment about the specific incident.
A Syrian military source reiterated government denials that
hospitals have been targeted. However, the source said militants
were being targeted wherever they were, "on the ground and
Since the ceasefire collapsed, fierce battles have been
waged in the northern city of Aleppo, where pro-government
forces are trying to capture the last major urban area under
rebel control, and near Hama, where rebels have launched an
advance of their own that threatens to approach the important
The cave hospital opened north of Hama in late 2015 after
aid groups and other donors paid about half a million dollars to
build and equip it. It is close to a frontline where clashes and
heavy bombardment have occurred in recent days.
"It was hit at the height of our work, at a time when there
was the largest number of patients and wounded," al-Dbis said.
All medical staff and patients were evacuated while
equipment was put into storage for fear of another attack on the
hospital, he said, describing it as the best fortified in all of
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring body
based in Britain, reported heavy bombardment by government
forces in the area, including the town of Kafr Zita and other
towns on Sunday.
The Observatory said helicopters had dropped "barrel bombs"
made from oil drums near the hospital the day before, and cited
sources as saying they caused several people to choke - a sign
of a gas attack. Rebels also said there had been a chlorine
attack in the area.
The government vehemently denies using chemical weapons, but
a United Nations inquiry last month said the Syrian military had
been responsible for poison gas attacks in the past.
"The chlorine attack the night before had 30 victims, most
of whom were treated at the cave," said Adham Sahloul, an
advocacy officer at the Syrian American Medical Society, which
funds most of the hospital's operating costs. "But they were out
of the hospital by then."
Doctors at the hospital perform more than 150 surgeries and
treat at least 40 intensive care cases from rural areas near
Hama every month, according to UOSSM.
The hospital provides all medical treatment without charge,
and mainly serves people living in nearby towns who had already
fled their homes in other parts of Syria. Some wounded rebels
are also treated there, al-Dbis said.
"I will not hide it, there's great fear among the hospital
staff," Darwish, the hospital director, said. "But God willing,
we will get back to work after the repairs. And when they stay
deep inside the hospital, nothing will happen to them."
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus McDowall
and Peter Graff)