Shelling of rebel village in northern Syria kills 4 students

MAARET AL-NAASAN, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces on Monday shelled a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria, the country’s last major opposition stronghold, killing four students on their way to school, opposition activists said.

The shelling targeted the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib province, which is home to more than 3 million people, many of them internally displaced by the country’s civil war which erupted after a brutal military crackdown against a popular uprising in 2011.

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

“They were on their way to start their school day and this strike by the criminal regime hit,” he said.

The boys were killed about 50 meters (165 feet) away from the school and their blood-splattered school bags were still on the ground some time after the shelling. Their bags had the markings of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

The bodies were later put in black bags and buried in the village’s cemetery.

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

Touma said the rebel-held region is home to 1 million children, many of them displaced several 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 facilities and personnel since the conflict began.

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

Monday’s shelling came as Russian warplanes reportedly conducted strikes on other parts of Idlib. The Observatory and the Thiqa news agency, an activist collective, said Russian warplanes attacked southern parts of the province on Monday.

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

Even after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian warplanes have continued to conduct airstrikes in Idlib, targeting suspected insurgent positions, as well as in central Syria, where sleeper cells of the Islamic State group are active. However, the Observatory says that the number of Russian strikes have dropped since late February.

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

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Bassem Mroue contributed reporting from Beirut.

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