A missile struck a school building in northwestern Syria on Tuesday morning, killing eight civilians, opposition activists said, as government forces captured a key village held by al-Qaeda insurgents in the war-torn country’s last rebel stronghold.
Syrian government troops also surrounded a Turkish observation post in the area, the activists said.
They said the village of Jarjanaz was captured from al-Qaeda late Monday.
Syrian forces launched a wide ground offensive last week into the northwestern province of Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The offensive follows weeks of bombardment that has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The United Nations estimates some 60,000 people have fled from the area, heading south, after the bombings intensified earlier this month. Thousands more have fled further north toward the Turkish border in recent days, where the UN has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. Idlib province is home to some three million civilians.
More than 40 villages and hamlets have come under government control in southern parts of Idlib since Thursday, according to activists and Syrian Brig.-Gen. Ali Mayhoub. The military statement called on civilians to stay away from militant positions and asked them to come to government-held areas if they can.
65 children killed in December
The activists blamed Russia — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally in the war — for Tuesday’s missile attack, which hit the Jobas village school, although that hasn’t been verified.
Among the eight killed were five children and a woman, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian citizen journalist Hussein Khattab reported the same death toll. The school building was used by people displaced by violence in other parts of the country, the observatory and Khattab said.
Following the school attack, Ted Chaiban, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement Tuesday that Syrian children are “bearing the brunt of intensifying violence.”
More than 500 children have been injured or killed in the first nine months of 2019, with at least 65 children killed or injured in December alone, Chaiban said.
“The upsurge in violence and displacement comes as temperatures plummet around the region, bringing flooding and freezing rain. Children living in camps or other poorly insulated accommodation are exhausted from multiple displacements and particularly exposed to the cold, illness and in extreme cases death,” he said.
Syrian troops have been pushing toward the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, which sits on a highway linking the capital of Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Assad’s forces appear determined to eventually reopen the strategic highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.
The observatory said the troops were about four kilometres from Maaret al-Numan, adding that government forces advancing from the east have surrounded the Turkish observation post near the village of Surman.
Turkey is a strong backer of Syrian rebels and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement brokered last year with Russia. The post near Surman is the second that has been encircled by Syrian troops this year.