BEIRUT: At least 100 people were killed on Thursday in an attack on a military academy in Syria, a war monitor and an official said, with weaponised drones bombing the site minutes after Syria’s defence minister left a graduation ceremony there.
It was one of the bloodiest attacks ever against a Syrian army installation, and unprecedented in its use of weaponised drones in a country which has faced 12 years of civil war.
Civilians and military personnel were killed in the attack on the military academy in the central province of Homs, Syria’s defence ministry said in a statement, adding “terrorist” groups had used drones to carry it out.
The statement did not specify an organisation and no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Syria’s defence and foreign ministries vowed in written statements to respond “with full force” to the attack.
Syrian government forces have carried out heavy bombing attacks on the opposition-held zone of Idlib throughout the day.
Syria’s defence minister attended the graduation ceremony but left minutes before the attack, according to a Syrian security source and a security source in the regional alliance backing the Damascus government against opposition groups.
“After the ceremony, people went down to the courtyard and the explosives hit. We don’t know where it came from, and corpses littered the ground,” said a Syrian man who had helped set up decorations at the academy for the occasion.
Footage shared with Reuters through the messaging app WhatsApp showed people - some in fatigues and others in civilian clothes - lying in pools of blood in a large courtyard.
Some of the bodies were smouldering and others were still on fire.
Amid the screaming, someone could be heard shouting “put him out!” A spray of gunfire could be heard in the background.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 100 people were killed and 125 injured. The source in the alliance backing Syria’s government said the toll was around 100.
Syria’s health minister, however, put the toll at 80 killed and 240 wounded. 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.
UN 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.
Turkish raids kill 9
Separately, Turkish air raids in the war-torn country’s Kurdish-held northeast killed at least nine people, according to Kurdish forces, after Ankara had threatened raids in retaliation for a bomb attack.
The Turkish strikes on Hasakeh province in Kurdish-held northeast Syria “killed six members of the internal security” agency, a statement from the Kurdish force’s media centre said.
A worker at a site in the province was also killed, according to Farhad Shami, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurds’ de facto army.
The Kurdish authorities’ statement also said “two civilians” were killed in a strike on a motorcycle.
Turkey regularly strikes targets in Syrian Kurds’ semi-autonomous region.