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Drone attack kills at least 80 at a packed Syria military graduation ceremony

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Syria’s military blamed “terrorist organisations” for a drone attack on a military graduation ceremony in the city Homs that killed at least 80 people and wounded 240.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s strike, which was one of the deadliest recent attacks on an army that has been fighting a civil war for more than a decade.

The attack killed civilians, including six children, as well as military personnel, and there were concerns the death toll could rise as many of the wounded were in serious condition, Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash said.

Syria’s military said in an earlier statement that drones laden with explosives targeted the ceremony packed with young officers and their families as it was wrapping up.

Without naming any particular group, the military accused insurgents “backed by known international forces” of the attack and said “it will respond with full force and decisiveness to these terrorist organisations, wherever they exist”.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “expressed deep concern” about the drone attack in Homs as well as reports of retaliatory shelling in northwest Syria, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

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Guterres condemned all violence and called for a nationwide ceasefire, the spokesperson added.

The military did not provide 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, reported 112 dead including 21 civilians, 11 of them women and girls. It said at least 120 people were wounded.

The Observatory suspected either the Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the terrorist group Islamic State could be behind it.

Syria’s crisis started with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in March 2011 but quickly morphed into a full-blown civil war after the government’s brutal crackdown on the protesters.

The tide turned in Assad’s favour 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 destroyed many parts of the country. It has displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside Syria.

Although most Arab governments have restored ties with the government in Damascus, Syria remains divided, with a northwest enclave under the control of al-Qaeda-linked militants from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group and Turkish-backed opposition fighters.

The scene following the drone attack on the Syrian military academy in Homs. Photo: Reuters

The country’s northeast is under control of US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The city of Homs is deep in government-held territory, far from front lines where government and rebel forces routinely skirmish.

After the drone attack, Syrian government forces shelled villages in Idlib province, in the northwest. At least 10 civilians were wounded in the towns of Al-Nayrab and Sarmin east of Idlib city, according to opposition-held northwestern Syria’s civil defence organisation known as the White Helmets. Government forces continue to shell other areas in the enclave.

The Syrian army shelled another village in the region earlier on Thursday before the drone attack over Homs, killing at least five civilians, activists and emergency workers said. The shelling hit a family house on the outskirts of the village of Kafr Nouran in western Aleppo province, according to the White Helmets.

A woman and four of her children were killed, according to the Observatory. Nine other members of the family were wounded, it said.

The vast majority of around 4.1 million people living in northwestern Syria 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.

The aftermath of shelling on the town of Jisr al-Shoughour, west of the city of Idlib in Syria on Thursday. Photo: Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP

In northeastern Syria, local authorities said Turkish drone attacks struck 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 five civilians were killed.

Meanwhile, three US officials said that a US F-16 fighter jet shot down a Turkish drone on Thursday that came too close to their positions in Hassakeh after it had been dropping bombs in nearby areas.

The US has about 900 troops in Syria conducting missions to counter Islamic State group militants.

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A Turkish defence ministry official said the drone that was shot down did not belong to the Turkish armed forces, but did not say whose property it was.

On Wednesday, Ankara warned it would step up its cross-border air raids, after concluding that militants who staged a weekend attack in the Turkish capital had come from Syria.

Turkey views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that dominate the SDF as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

Turkey has launched strikes on PKK positions in northern Iraq since Sunday’s attack in Ankara, which wounded two Turkish security officers and was claimed by the Kurdish group.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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