UNICEF: Syrian school attack potential war crime; toll rises

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BEIRUT: The UN’s children’s agency on Thursday raised the death toll from a brutal attack the previous day on a school in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province to 28, including 22 children and six teachers, and suggested it may have been the deadliest attack on a school in the country’s civil war.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate and impartial investigation of the attack.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry said their reconnaissance means have registered a US attack drone in the area where the school bombing took place.
A US’ MQ-1B Predator drone has been seen in the area, the ministry’s spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
The airstrikes struck the village of Hass around midday Wednesday, hitting a residential compound that houses a school complex. The Syrian Civil Defense first responder team and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that the airstrikes killed at least 35 people, mostly children.
The Observatory said 15 students were killed, as well as four teachers and three other women. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the separate figures, but divergent death tolls are not uncommon in a conflict-torn Syria that has been largely inaccessible to international media for over two years.
UNICEF and the Syrian Civil Defense said the death toll is likely to rise as rescue efforts continue. They said that two schools in the area were hit with 11 airstrikes around midday.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake called the airstrikes an “outrage,” adding that if found to be deliberate the attacks would be considered a war crime.
“This latest atrocity may be the deadliest attack on a school since the war began,” Lake said in a statement. “When will the world’s revulsion at such barbarity be matched by insistence that this must stop?”
Idlib has regularly been hit by Syrian and Russian warplanes as well as the US-led coalition targeting Daesh militants. An activist at the scene said as many as 10 airstrikes were believed to have hit Hass on Wednesday.
Juliette Touma, regional UNICEF chief of communication, said Wednesday’s attack was the deadliest attack on a school in 2016, bring the overall death toll of children killed in such attacks in 2016 to 54.
Russia, however, said it had nothing to do with airstrikes.
“The Russian Federation has nothing do with this terrible tragedy, with this attack,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, adding that Moscow demanded an immediate investigation. According to Touma, 591 children were killed in 2015 in Syria.
Prior to Wednesday’s attack, the deadliest assault on a school was reported in April 2014 when 30 children were killed in airstrikes that hit a school in the rebel-held part of Aleppo city, according to UNICEF.
UNICEF said it has verified at least 38 attacks on schools this year across Syria, whether in government-held areas or rebel-controlled territory, compared to 60 attacks last year.
“In general there are one in three schools in Syria that can’t be used anymore because they were damaged or destroyed or used for military purposes or sheltering the displaced,” Touma told The Associated Press, speaking from Amman, Jordan.
Separately, in Thursday, Syria’s state TV said two students were killed and 13 others were wounded by projectiles fired by rebel fighters at a school in the government-held western part of Aleppo.
Elsewhere, at least eight people were killed in government shelling of Doumas, a rebel-held suburb east of the capital Damascus, according to the Syrian Civil Defense team and the Observatory. The first responders said that there was a child among the eight who died.
UNICEF says over 1.7 million Syrian children remain out of school in 2016, a staggering figure but a drop from 2014 when 2.1 million were recorded as not attending classes. The UN agency says another 1.3 million are at risk of dropping out this year. In the rebel-held part of Aleppo, teachers and volunteers have set up underground schools to ensure some classes continue amid a punishing bombing campaign and a siege that has tightened since July.
In other developments Thursday, UN official Jan Egeland, speaking in Geneva, said efforts will be renewed to secure the evacuation of nearly 200 wounded from eastern Aleppo districts, and allow medical and food supplies into the besieged part of the city.
Egeland said a lack of trust, fear, and misunderstandings, as well as unacceptable preconditions, have prevented evacuations. “We are not giving up,” Egeland said.
However, he said the Syrian government has denied humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo as part of a monthly UN plan to access 25 besieged and remote areas in Syria.
“We need to overturn that decision because east Aleppo needs humanitarian supplies, they need it urgently,” Egeland said. “If not … it will be the worst winter in now the six winters we have had in the conflict.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended Russia’s support for the army’s siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of the city of Aleppo, saying it’s necessary to crush the militants there.
Putin spoke on Thursday to international foreign policy experts in Sochi. He says there is choice between “keeping a terrorist nest there or crushing that nest while minimizing civilian casualties.”
Putin shrugged off the calls to end the onslaught on Aleppo, arguing that the US-backed, Iraqi-led siege of Mosul should also be halted then, and the prospective attack on “ by the US-led coalition should not be launched at all.
Separately, the European Union on Thursday added 10 top Syrian officials to its sanctions blacklist for their role in the “violent repression” of the civilian population.
“The persons… include high-ranking military officials and senior figures linked to the regime,” who will now face travel bans and asset freezes, it said in a statement.
The names of those targeted will be released in due course.

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