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Beirut, January 11, 2019 – A November 24, 2018 attack by Syrian government forces near an elementary school that killed six children, a teacher, and a student’s mother, appears to have been unlawful and indiscriminate, Human Rights Watch said today. All parties to the conflict, including the Syrian-Russian military alliance and non-state armed groups, should ensure that children and civilians are protected from any attack.
The ground-launched attack in the town of Jarjanaz, in Idlib governorate, was with a Russian-made 240mm mortar system, which fires a large high-explosive projectile that is designed to “demolish fortifications and fieldworks,” according to a Russian arms merchandizing catalogue. It also wounded as many as 10 children, at least two of whom lost limbs, and three adults. Launching an indiscriminate attack resulting in death or injury to civilians, or an attack in the knowledge that it will cause excessive incidental civilian loss, injury, or damage, when committed with criminal intent, can amount to a war crime.
“This horrific attack on Jarjanaz is a small glimpse of what an all-out offensive on Idlib without strict measures to protect civilians could mean for thousands of children,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In light of recent upheavals in the province, it is essential for Russia to pressure Syrian government forces to halt such blatantly unlawful attacks and for all parties to the conflict to make protecting civilians a priority.”
About 3 million people remain in Idlib, over half of whom have fled fighting elsewhere in Syria. It is one of the last major areas controlled by anti-government groups. Despite a ceasefire agreement between government and anti-government armed groups in Idlib governorate since September 17, both parties have carried out artillery attacks. In November and December, there were at least eight attacks on Jarjanaz, which residents say was under the control of the Turkey-backed anti-government National Liberation Front at the time of the November 24 attack. In January, the area was taken by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, an anti-government group known to be close to al-Qaeda. In-fighting among the anti-government factions has also caused civilian casualties.
Witnesses said that between 12:45 p.m. and 1 p.m. on November 24, three projectiles hit the area near al-Khansaa elementary school, on the southwestern outskirts of Jarjanaz, causing massive explosions. Photographs shared with Human Rights Watch by witnesses and online videos posted within hours of the attack show remnants of Russian-made 3F2 “Gagara” rocket-assisted 240mm mortar projectiles.
Al-Khansaa elementary school operated with two shifts, the first for children ages 6 to 9 and the second, which began at 11 a.m., for children ages 8 to 13, school administrators said. Roughly 200 children in the second shift were at the school when the first artillery round exploded at around 12:45 p.m. or 12:50 p.m. on Saturday, a school-day in the area, school officials told Human Rights Watch.
Next to the school is a teacher-training college with another 250 students, attended by women ages 19 and older. All remained inside the college during the attacks and none were wounded, said school officials and a civil defense volunteer whose father works at the college.
Human Rights Watch spoke via WhatsApp with seven witnesses to the attack, including three staff members at the school, a store-owner who lives nearby, a local media activist, and two civil defense volunteers who arrived at the school to evacuate the wounded. All asked not to be named, fearing reprisals by government forces. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and videos the witnesses shared, and videos and images of the attack posted online.
Witnesses said they could not hear the mortars being fired but that the explosions were extraordinarily loud, which is consistent with the range and destructive power of rocket-assisted 240mm mortar projectiles. “The sound was louder than barrels or MiG bombs,” one resident said, referring to the improvised barrel bombs, dropped by Syrian helicopters and to conventional high-explosive bombs dropped by fixed-wing Russian-made aircraft.
All the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed affirmed that no military objects were in Jarjanaz or near the school, although Human Rights Watch could not independently verify this. A media activist said that residents had not permitted “armed groups to cross through [Jarjanaz], no convoys, and there are no military headquarters. The headquarters are in agricultural lands far away from the town.” A school official affirmed that “there have been no military centers or headquarters in Jarjanaz” since the conflict began in 2011.
The lack of a military presence in or near the school or the surrounding area would make such attacks on civilians indiscriminate and possibly deliberate. Even if the attacks had targeted a military objective, the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in a populated area should be avoided due to the foreseeable harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
“There is no excuse for attacking civilian structures like schools, yet Syrian forces continue to maim and kill schoolchildren with impunity,” said Van Esveld. “Stopping indiscriminate attacks is an important first step to protect those most vulnerable.”
For details of the attack and the weaponry and accounts from witnesses, please see below.
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