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An unexploded 9N24 fragmentation submunition is marked by deminers in Sarmin, Idlib governorate. © 2020 Syria Civil Defense

(Beirut) – A ballistic missile equipped with a banned cluster munition warhead launched by Syrian forces killed 12 civilians, including 5 children, at a school on January 1, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attack killed 9 civilians, including the 5 children ages 6 to 13. Three other adults have since died of their wounds, one a teacher whose son was also killed. At least 13 more civilians, 12 children and another teacher, were injured in the attack on the Abdo Salama School in the town of Sarmin, Idlib governorate. 

“After years of killing and maiming children in brutal attacks, the Syrian government starts the new decade by using a banned weapon to kill more children and their teachers,” said Lama Fakih, Crisis and Conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government should cease its repugnant use of cluster munitions and attacks on schools and hold accountable the officials who authorized it.”

Human Rights Watch has documented repeated attacks on education by the joint Syrian-Russian coalition as well as by opposing armed groups. Two in five schools are closed due to war damage, used as a shelter for displaced people, or for military use.

Cluster munitions are prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Syria and Russia are not among the treaty’s 107 states parties. All available information indicates that the January 1 attack violated the laws of war, which prohibit deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians by all parties to the conflict as war crimes. More than 100 countries, though not Russia or Syria, have committed to protect education from attack by endorsing the international Safe Schools Declaration.

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses, who said the attack occurred shortly before 11:45 a.m. Submunitions landed on the school and surrounding areas, while remnants of the rocket motor used to launch the weapon landed 500 meters away. 

Remnants of an 9M79M Tochka ballistic missile used to deliver submunitions in an attack in Sarmin, Idlib governorate. © 2020 Syria Civil Defense

The witnesses, interviewed separately, heard an explosion in the sky followed by a large number of explosions, seconds apart. An education worker who was at home near the school said, “for 30 or 40 seconds, you hear nothing other than explosions. The entire area shook.”

A shop owner said that four submunitions landed near him just outside the school gate, causing four casualties and wounding him in the leg. He “crawled to the wall. I could no longer hear well due to the explosion and pressure. The dust was all over, you could see nothing but white.”

A resident whose son is a student at the school ran to help people in a car that was hit just outside the school gate, setting the fuel tank on fire: “All I could see was destruction, blood, kids on the ground screaming, and women pleading for help.” The attack killed his neighbors’ daughter, he said.

Another submunition fell into a residential building whose owner could not afford to construct a cement roof, killing a woman, Hanan al-Khalil, in her kitchen, two witnesses said. The education worker saw her husband in the street “having a breakdown, and all he could say was ‘up, up.’”

A Syria Civil Defense worker who helped check the area for explosive remnants told Human Rights Watch that he “found an unexploded [submunition] east of the school, approximately two meters from the school wall.” Other submunitions exploded in the school playground, the bathrooms, and the entrance of the administration office. Civil Defense workers found the navigation head of the missile in a person’s home, the engine in the yard of another home, and the rest of the missile body in a small olive grove five meters from a third residential building. They determined that the missile was launched from the northeast.

Human Rights Watch examined videos and photographs of remnants of the weapon and identified it as an 9M79M Tochka ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead, which contains 50 9N24 fragmentation submunitions. According to the Russian manufacturer, each 9N24 submunition contains 1.45 kilograms of explosives and shatters into approximately 316 fragments. Images and videos taken at the scene of the attack show a pattern of blast and fragmentation damage and wounding that is common with the use of cluster munitions.

Abdo Salama School teaches primary and middle school classes, and secondary school classes for girls, residents said. Most of the 900 children had left school earlier than usual on January 1 because it was an exam period. 

The school compound is on a residential street adjacent to the eastern Sarmin market. The town is under the administrative control of the Syrian Salvation government, affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda affiliate group. All the witnesses interviewed said there was no military presence in or near the school. “This is a civilian area,” said the father of a student at the school, whose neighbors’ daughter was killed in the attack. “No military presence at all. Just a market, a school, and homes.” The area around the school hosted a weekly bazaar before the town council called it off due to fear of attacks.

Thousands of people displaced by fighting elsewhere have sought refuge in the town, and the school was teaching classes and serving as a shelter for displaced persons, residents said. A half-finished residential building adjacent to the school was also sheltering displaced people. 

An unexploded 9N24 fragmentation submunition is prepared for demolition in Sarmin, Idlib governorate.  © 2020 Syria Civil Defense

Since December 12, 2019, at least 300,000 Syrians have been displaced from southern Idlib, including at least 175,000 children, according to the United Nations. This is not the first time that the Syrian-Russian military alliance attacked civilian infrastructure that houses those displaced, leaving hundreds without shelter, Human Rights Watch said.

Syria Relief, a United Kingdom-based charity that runs the school, stated that it was the sixth time the charity’s schools in Idlib had been damaged by attacks since April.

Since the outset of the armed conflict in Syria in 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from Syrian government use of cluster munitions and the use of ballistic missiles beginning in August 2013 and has since identified the use of Tochka missiles equipped with either high-explosive or cluster munition warheads in dozens of attacks in Syria.

Russian forces deployed in Syria possess stockpiles of cluster munition, as documented in photographs published by media outlets, and have actively supported the government’s use of cluster munitions since their joint operation began in September 2015. As part of a military alliance, Russia is jointly responsible for the use of prohibited weapons and any violations of the laws of war committed in Syria. It should immediately cease providing munitions to its ally and urge Syria to stop using them.

Since mid-2012, there have been at least 674 cluster munition attacks in Syria according to Cluster Munition Monitor, with hundreds – and most likely thousands – of victims. The actual number of cluster munition attacks is also most likely higher.

“In the face of continued attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, countries should re-double their efforts to hold those responsible for these unlawful attacks accountable,” Fakih said.  

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