Shelling of rebel village in northern Syria kills 4 students

MAARET AL-NAASAN, Syria – Syrian government forces on Monday shelled a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria, the country’s last major opposition stronghold, killing four students as they walked to school, opposition activists said.

The shelling targeted the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib province, home to more than 3 million people, many of whom are internally displaced by the civil war that erupted after a brutal military crackdown on a popular uprising in 2011.

Hajj Ahmed, the headmaster of al-Amal school, said the attack happened around 11:15 a.m. and one of the students was in the ninth grade. Another was in seventh grade and two were in eighth grade.

“They were about to start their school day and this criminal regime strike hit,” he said.

The boys were killed about 50 meters (165 ft) from the school and their blood spattered school bags were still on the ground some time after the bombing. Their bags bore the marks of the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.

The bodies were then put in black bags and buried in the village cemetery.

“It is a stark reminder that the war on children continues,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma. “Every child in Syria, wherever they are, has the right to go to school safely.”

Touma said the rebel-held region is home to 1 million children, many of whom have been displaced multiple times during the conflict. She added that 70% of children killed in Syria last year were in and around Idlib province.

Touma said there have been 751 attacks on educational institutions and personnel since the start of the conflict.

An opposition war monitoring group, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Idlib-based activist Hadi Abdullah also reported that the four students were killed while they were going to school. The Observatory said the four were all boys and all under the age of 18. He did not provide further details.

Monday’s bombardment came as Russian fighter jets reportedly carried out strikes on other parts of Idlib. The Observatory and the Thiqa news agency, an activist collective, said Russian warplanes attacked the south of the province on Monday.

Russia joined the Syrian conflict in September 2015, helping to tip the balance of power in favor of its ally, the forces of President Bashar Assad.

Even after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russian warplanes continued to carry out airstrikes in Idlib, targeting suspected insurgent positions, as well as in central Syria, where Islamic State sleeper cells are active. However, the Observatory indicates that the number of Russian strikes has decreased since the end of February.

Syria’s 11-year conflict has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s 23 million pre-war inhabitants.

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Bassem Mroue contributed reporting from Beirut.

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