Two largest hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo bombed

Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - An air strike and artillery fire hit the two largest hospitals in rebel-held parts of Syria's Aleppo on Wednesday, in what rights groups said was a deliberate strategy of targeting civilian infrastructure.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces and his ally Moscow have carried out a barrage of air strikes on opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo since Syria's regime announced a bid last week to retake all of the divided city.

Dozens of civilians have been killed, residential buildings have been reduced to rubble and residents of eastern districts -- already suffering under a government siege -- are facing severe shortages of food and medical supplies.

The latest bombardment of the city has been some of the worst in Syria's five-year civil war, and comes after the failure of a short-lived ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States earlier this month.

The two hospitals were struck just before dawn, with the M10 facility hit in an air strike and the M2 facility hit with artillery fire, said Adham Sahloul of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports both hospitals.

The attacks put both facilities temporarily out of commission and left only six hospitals operational in the eastern parts of the city, Sahloul said, calling the attacks "deliberate".

It was unclear who had carried out the bombings.

"I am in the M2 hospital now. I was inside when the entrance to the emergency room was hit. Three of my colleagues were hurt," said Aref al-Aref, a medical assistant trapped inside.

"Everyone is terrified and scared today. We are afraid that we will be today's victims," he told AFP.

- 'Death warrant for hundreds' -

Sahloul warned of devastating consequences if the hospitals remain closed and violence spiked as it did with heavy strikes over the weekend.

"With these two hospitals gone, if today there is another offensive like Saturday or Sunday, this is signing the death warrant for hundreds of people," he told AFP.

The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned that medical facilities in the city's east were on the verge of "complete destruction".

The UN body called for "an immediate establishment of humanitarian routes to evacuate sick and wounded from the eastern part of the city."

More than 170 people have been killed in east Aleppo since Syria's army announced its operation to retake the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

On Wednesday, at least six civilians died in artillery fire by regime forces near a bakery in the opposition-controlled Maadi district, the Observatory said.

A hospital in the government-held west also reported two people had been killed and 10 injured in rebel fire on the Aziziyeh district.

Clashes also continued inside Aleppo's Old City for a second day, the Observatory said, after pro-government troops seized control of the Farafira district northwest of Aleppo's historic citadel on Tuesday.

- 'Will answer before God' -

Once Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo has been ravaged by fighting since 2012 and is divided between government forces in the west and rebels in the east.

An estimated 250,000 people still live in the eastern districts, which have been under devastating siege by government forces since early September.

Rights groups and the opposition accuse the Syrian government and its allies of using sieges and deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure to pressure civilians to flee.

"There is no objective to attacking these hospitals other than adding to the suffering of civilians, destroying infrastructure so that civilians are left with no hospitals and are then forced to leave," said Diana Semaan, Syria campaigner at Amnesty International.

In announcing its operation, Syria's army urged civilians to flee to government-held territory, but residents of the east fear passing through regime-held districts.

The head of the White Helmets volunteer rescue force, which operates in opposition-held territory in northern Syria, told AFP that under current conditions civilian facilities in eastern Aleppo would no longer be able to provide services within a month.

"The civilians there would seize any opportunity to escape, to go wherever they could go," Raed Saleh said.

"But nothing is available to provide safety and protection for those civilians. We are worried that they are facing massacre or the kidnapping or the arrest of many of them."

Pope Francis on Wednesday called for the bombing to stop.

"I appeal to the conscience of those responsible for the bombardment, who will have to answer before God," the pope said at his weekly address in St Peter's square, without naming Syria or Russia.