BEIRUT - Airstrikes in Syria killed up to 22 people, mostly children, on Wednesday when warplanes struck a residential area housing a school complex in the northern rebel-held province of Idlib, activists and rescue workers said.
A team of first responders, the Syrian Civil Defense in Idlib, said 22 people were killed and at least 50 wounded in the raids on the village of Hass. Most of those killed were children, the group said in a posting on its Facebook page.
Another activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, gave the same death toll and said 14 children and a woman were among those killed.
The activist-operated Idlib News network, which gave a lower toll of 17 people killed, said the strikes hit as the children were gathered outside the school complex. It said the death toll could rise as some of the wounded were reported to be in critical condition, the network added.
Idlib is the main Syrian opposition stronghold, though radical groups also have a large presence there. It has regularly been hit by Syrian and Russian warplanes as well as the U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS.)
Footage posted by activists online shows a huge plume of smoke rising from the area of the strikes and rescuers rushing casualties away along a dusty road lined with destroyed buildings.
A woman’s body is seen being carried on a stretcher while other bodies, covered in cloth and one with only a hat, lie under shrubs and other casualties are ferried away in pick-up trucks.
An activist at the scene, Muaz al-Shami, said as many as 10 airstrikes were believed to have hit the residential area.
The video content couldn’t be independently confirmed. However, it conforms with AP reporting on the events depicted.
Earlier in the day, the northernprovince saw a new escalation as a helicopter believed to belong to Syrian government forces dropped in a deadly attack on Turkey-backed opposition forces in the border area, Turkish officials said.
A statement attributed to the field commander of Syria’s pro-government troops said any Turkish advances in northern Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS militants would be dealt with “forcefully and appropriately.”
The barrel bombing was said to have occurred in the village of Tal Madiq, in a part of northern Aleppo where rival groups have been operating, mostly to rout ISIS militants.
If confirmed, it would be the first attack by Syrian government forces on the Turkish-backed fighters. Turkey’s state-run news agency didn’t say when the attack occurred and said at least two Syrian opposition fighters were killed and five others wounded. A Syrian opposition spokesman said it took place Tuesday.
The Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said helicopters struck as intense clashes were underway between Kurdish-led fighters and Turkey-backed forces in Tal Madiq and that 11 Syrian opposition fighters and five Kurdish fighters were killed.
The Kurdish-led forces are now in control of the village, about 10 miles from the highly prized ISIS-controlled town of al-Bab. A senior Kurdish commander, however, denied Syrian government bombings of the Turkey-backed fighters, saying it was an attempted explanation for battlefield losses.
“They are trying to find a pretext for the loss. No aircraft were involved,” Mahmoud Barkhadan of the main Syria Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from the region.
A spokesman for the Syrian fighting group Nour el-Din el-Zinki, Yasser al-Youssef, said the Kurdish-led forces attacked them while they were fighting ISIS militants in the area. Then Syrian government helicopters followed, he said in a message.
The complex terrain is a powder keg where confrontation among rival groups can break out anytime: U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and Turkey. Ankara sent tanks, troops and aircraft into northern Syria in August in an unprecedented incursion that it said was part of efforts to help Syrian opposition clear the border area of ISIS fighters.
But Ankara is also seeking to contain the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces fighting ISIS, putting it at odds with its key ally, the United States. Ankara sees Kurdish fighters in Syria as an extension of its outlawed Kurdish militants and designated as a terrorist organization.
Syria’s military threatened last week to shoot down any Turkish warplane that enters Syrian air space, after Turkish jets raided villages in northern Syria in an escalation of Ankara’s offensive against Kurdish fighters.
On Wednesday, a statement attributed to the field commander of pro-government troops said Turkish advance under the pretext of fighting ISIS in northern and eastern Aleppo is an encroachment on the Syrian government’s area of operations and would not be tolerated.
The fall of al-Bab to Turkey-backed rebels would threaten the government’s siege on the rebels in the city of Aleppo, to the west.
Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that Turkey is determined to push ahead with the offensive in northern Syria - dubbed Operation Eurphrates Shield - and capture al-Bab from ISIS militants. It would not be deterred by the bombing of Tal Madiq, he said.
“Such attacks will not stop us from combatting Daesh,” Cavusoglu said, using an Arabic language acronym for ISIS. “The Euphrates Shield operation will continue. The only goal of the Euphrates Shield operation is to clear Daesh from this area.”