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BEIRUT — A drone attack on a military academy in Homs, in western Syria, killed at least 80 people, authorities in Damascus said Thursday, one of the deadliest attacks on government-held territory in years.
Syria retaliated with airstrikes pummeling the northwest of the country, which is home to various rebel forces and millions of civilians.
Drones carrying explosives struck the Homs Military Academy during a graduation ceremony attended by families, according to the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Hussein al-Ghabash, the health minister, said the preliminary death toll was 80, including six women and six children. He said that 240 people were wounded.
Videos shared by Arab channels revealed a panicked scene: Gunshots filled the air as people ran for cover, hiding behind columns of a building decorated with Baathist slogans, from the ruling party of President Bashar al-Assad. The wounded lay on the ground screaming. Cadets in khaki uniforms tried to help them.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the government attributed it to “terrorist organizations supported by the American occupation and other international parties that partner with them in shedding the blood of Syrians.” It vowed to respond to the attackers “wherever they could be found on Syrian lands.”
The Syrian air force rained rockets down on Idlib province, in northwest Syria, a small pocket of territory that has long been outside the government’s control. It is home to a patchwork of rebel groups that oppose Assad, as well as some 4.5 million civilians — nearly 2.9 million of whom were displaced from other parts of Syria during the war.
The airstrikes targeted two schools, a market, and an electricity company, said Munir al-Mustapha, deputy director of Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the “White Helmets,” an emergency response group that operates in rebel-held areas and is often first on the scene after government attacks.
At least five people were killed Thursday, Mustapha told The Washington Post. “There is a systematic and clear targeting of civilians [by] the terrorist Assad regime,” he said.
Idlib is routinely targeted by government forces, and shelling has intensified in recent weeks. In early September, an estimated 26,500 people were displaced by strikes, according to the United Nations. Airstrikes on Wednesday night also killed five people. “The only thing the regime is good at is killing civilians,” Mustapha said.
Much of Idlib is run by a government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful rebel force in the area. Formerly a branch of al-Qaeda, it has attempted to rebrand itself in recent years and distance itself from the group.
HTS has used drones before in attacks on government targets, said Gregory Waters, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who tracks armed groups in Syria. “This would be, I think, by far, the deepest behind-the-lines drone strike,” Waters said of the attack on the military academy. “And it seems targeted. The images of the scene seem to show it hit the VIP stands”
Judging by what unfolded afterward, Waters said the attack may have happened later than planned: The officers had already graduated and were among civilians, meaning the official program was likely over and any government officials in the stands may already have left.
Mohamad El Chamaa in Beirut and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.