DAMASCUS – Regime airstrikes on a school complex in northwestern Syria killed at least 35 people, including 20 children, the Syria Civil Defense volunteer rescue group said, in what could be one of the deadliest strikes yet on a school in the nation’s five-year war, according to the UN.
The death toll is expected to rise as dozens of others were injured in the Wednesday attacks, said Majd Khalaf, a communications officer with the rescue group, also known as the White Helmets. Another rescuer told the activist-run SMART News Agency that around 50 children were leaving the front door when the strikes hit.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed the strikes on the Syrian regime and Russia, but it is generally difficult to distinguish between Syrian and Russian jets.
Russia has been supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with airstrikes since September 2015, and the allies have been widely criticized for targeting civilians, and hospitals and schools in rebel-held areas.
Jets hit the complex and the surrounding area in the village of Hass, in Idlib province, six times and many people remain in critical condition, Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory told CNN. The school had students from the first to ninth grade enrolled, he said.
The White Helmets said that there were three schools in the complex, and shared photos on social media showing buildings reduced to rubble.
UNICEF, the UN agency for children, said that the strikes may amount to a war crime.
“It’s a tragedy. It’s an outrage. And if deliberate, it’s a war crime” UNICEF executive director Tony Lake said in a statement.
“This latest atrocity may be the deadliest attack on a school since the war began more than five years ago,” he said.
“When will the world’s revulsion at such barbarity be matched by insistence that this must stop?”
The Syrian Civil Defense — a volunteer rescue group also known as the White Helmets — said that there were three schools in the complex, and shared photos on social media showing buildings reduced to rubble.
Many hospitals and schools in Syria have been forced underground to avoid becoming targets of regime and Russian airstrikes, particularly in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
A UN report in August found “sufficient evidence” that the regime had used chemical weapons on civilians, particularly barrel bombs laden with chlorine gas in Aleppo. The Syrian government and Russia both deny the accusations.
The school strikes come as pressure mounts on the international community to find a solution to the war, even though talks are faltering between the US and Russia, major players in the conflict.