Syria's health minister has raised the casualty tolls from a drone attack on Thursday that hit a packed military graduation ceremony in the central city of Homs to 80 killed and 240 wounded. It was one of the deadliest attacks on the Syrian army in recent years, with the country’s conflict now in its thirteenth year.
Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash said that civilians, including six children, and military personnel were among those killed. There were concerns the death toll could rise further as many of the wounded were in serious condition.
In an earlier statement, Syria’s military said that drones laden with explosives targeted the ceremony packed with young officers and their families as it was wrapping up in Homs. It accused insurgents “backed by known international forces” of the attack, without naming any particular group.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “expressed deep concern” at the drone attack in Homs as well as “reports of retaliatory shelling” in northwest Syria, his spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.
The military has not provided any casualty numbers but Syria's state television said the government announced a three-day state of mourning, starting on Friday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and the pro-government Sham FM radio station earlier reported the strikes.
The military accused insurgents “backed by known international forces” of the attack, without naming any particular group, and said that women and children were among those critically wounded.
The Syrian military said “it will respond with full force and decisiveness to these terrorist organizations, wherever they exist.”
Syria's crisis started with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad’s government in March 2011, but quickly morphed into a full-blown civil war following the government’s brutal crackdown on the protesters.
The tide turned in Assad’s favor against rebel groups in 2015, when Russia provided key military backing to Syria, as well as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
So far, the war has killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and left many parts of the country destroyed. It has displaced half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside Syria.
While most Arab governments have restored ties with the government Damascus, Syria remains divided, with a northwest enclave under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group and Turkish-backed opposition fighters. The country’s northeast is under control of U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Following the drone attack, the Syrian government forces shelled villages in Idlib province, in the rebel-held northwest. There were no immediate reports of casualties there.
The Syrian army shelled another village in the region earlier on Thursday, killing at least five civilians, activists and emergency workers said. The shelling hit a family house on the outskirts of the the village of Kafr Nouran in western Aleppo province, according to opposition-held northwestern Syria’s civil defense organization known as the White Helmets.
The dead were an older woman and four of her children, according to the Observatory. Nine other members of the family were wounded, it said.
Northwestern Syria is mostly held by al-Qaida linked fighters as well as Turkish-backed opposition forces. The vast majority of around 4.1 million people residing in the enclave live in poverty, relying on humanitarian aid to survive. Many of them are Syrians, internally displaced by the war from other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, local authorities in northeastern Syria, which is under U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Turkish drone attacks struck in Hassakeh and Qamishli provinces on Thursday, hitting oil production facilities, electrical substations and a dam.
A statement from the local Kurdish authorities said six members of their security forces and two civilians were killed.
Turkey didn't immediately comment on the strikes but Ankara says the main Syrian Kurdish militia is allied with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 that has killed tens of thousands of people. Ankara has declared the PKK a terrorist group.
Syrian Kurdish forces were a major U.S. ally in the war against the militant Islamic State group, which was defeated in Syria in March 2019.