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BEIRUT -- Missiles struck a medical center in Syria's northern rebel-held province, putting the underground facility out of service and killing a number of its staff members, opposition activists said Saturday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that airstrikes had seriously damaged the medical center in Abdin village, in Idlib. The activist-run Aleppo Today media group also reported on the airstrikes.

But later the Observatory said missiles, likely fired from land, had also hit the underground center, penetrating it and causing serious damage to the facility, which was built underground for protection. Airstrikes followed, the Observatory said.

International medical charities say Syrian government forces target hospitals, clinics and ambulances in opposition-held areas. To protect against the targeting, many opposition-area medical facilities have set up their operations underground.

The attack against the Abdin medical center caused fires and killed a person in the vicinity, the Observatory said. Rescue workers sifted the rubble to find survivors, lifting nine medical staff members as a search continued for four still missing.

The Aleppo Today group said three medical staff members were presumed killed.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, government and allied Russian forces have killed 727 medical workers in the course of the conflict.

The attacked medical center in Abdin is only a few miles north of Khan Sheikhoun, the town that was hit earlier this month with a chemical attack that left more than 80 people killed.

In Damascus on Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his war on terrorism would not cease as long as there is any terrorist "desecrating the sanctity of the Syrian soil."

He made the remarks as he presided over a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party.

Assad said the U.S. strikes against a Syrian military base in the country's center after the Idlib chemical attack were in response to the defeat of the "terrorists" in the central city of Hama's countryside, where they had launched an offensive. Assad's government, which denied using chemical weapons in the Idlib attack, calls all armed opposition groups terrorists.

At the United Nations, the head of a U.N. investigative panel on Syria warned Friday that thousands of evacuees sent to rebel-held Idlib and government-controlled western Aleppo province are likely to be caught in escalating fighting from increasingly radicalized extremist groups.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told reporters after a closed meeting with the U.N. Security Council that the panel is especially concerned that "a disaster" will happen in Idlib.

Syrians now concentrated there "are under serious risk about their lives," he said.

Pinheiro, chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, painted a grim picture of the plight of civilians caught in the conflict, now in its sixth year with more than 400,000 people killed.

"Parties to the Syrian war continue to put their interests ahead of those of the Syrian population," he said. "In fact, more often than not, they use military tactics that directly target civilians as a way to gain military advantage."

Pinheiro said the commission found that all warring parties committed human-rights violations during the siege and fall of Aleppo.

The siege ended in December when the rebels effectively surrendered the city to the government and evacuated their stronghold in the east, mainly to Idlib.

"Several other evacuation agreements have taken place after Aleppo resulting in tens of thousands of civilians moving to Idlib and western Aleppo province where they live in dire conditions," he said.

Under a recent deal reached by the Syrian government and rebels, up to 30,000 people are being allowed to leave four besieged areas over the coming two months, a population transfer that critics say is redrawing Syria's map along sectarian and political lines. On Friday, the first phase of the transfer ended.

Pinheiro said "Aleppo has also resulted in further radicalization of some armed groups."

He singled out the militant group Hay'at Tahrir al Sham. According to reports, it formed in late January by uniting Syria's Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, with four other groups.

Pinheiro said the extremists' presence in Idlib and western Aleppo raises "serious concerns for escalation of hostilities in those areas which puts at risk the evacuees now living there."

Information for this article was contributed by Edith M. Lederer of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/23/2017

Print Headline: Missiles knock out Syria hospital

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