Twin bombings near an elementary school in Syria killed at least 22 people, including at least 10 children, with the second blast going off as screaming parents frantically searched for their sons and daughters.
Syrian children are frequently among the victims of attacks in the country’s civil war, but on Wednesday they appear to have been the target. The first vehicle exploded as children were leaving school, and the second struck as adults carried away bodies, sending a new wave of panic through the crowd.
The attack occurred outside the Ekremah al-Makhzoumi elementary school in a government-controlled area of the central city of Homs dominated by minority Alawites, the Shia offshoot sect to which president Bashar Assad’s family belongs. It was one of the deadliest strikes to hit the area in months.
A local official said 22 people, 10 of them children, were killed in the attack and another 56 were wounded.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the second blast was a suicide bomber, and put the death toll in the twin attacks at 39, including 30 children under the age of 12.
The discrepancy in the casualty figures could not be immediately reconciled, but tolls frequently differ in the chaotic aftermath of attacks.
In footage of the bombings posted on a pro-government Facebook page, one man shouts “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Take him to the hospital!” as another man appears to drag away a child by his arms. Two little girls and a boy scream and cry as they are carried away.
Other people rush about and smoke billows from a burning vehicle. As one boy tugs on a man’s hand as if to run from the site, another blast goes off. A young girl covers her ears as others scream and run away. “Oh God! Oh God!” one man hoarsely shouts.
The video appeared genuine and was consistent with Associated Press reporting of events.
Homs governor Talal Barazi described the blasts as a “terrorist act and a desperate attempt that targeted school children”.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, but Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad have carried out numerous bombings in government-held areas of Homs.
All sides have carried out horrific attacks on civilians during the conflict - now in its fourth year – but rarely have children appeared to be the direct target.
In May, Syrian government forces bombed a complex in the northern city of Aleppo that housed a school alongside a rebel compound. At least 19 people, including 10 children, were killed in that incident.
Meanwhile, the Observatory reported that militants of the Islamic State group beheaded nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes near the Syria-Turkey border.
They were taken prisoner during the heavy fighting over the northern Syrian town of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, said the Observatory, which gathers its information from activists inside Syria.
The chief Kurdish group fighting in Syria, known as the YPG, advocates gender equality, and women fight alongside men.
Kurdish forces have been locked in fierce clashes with IS militants in and around Kobani since the extremist group launched an assault in mid-September. The fighting has created one of the single largest exoduses in Syria’s civil war, with more than 160,000 people fleeing into Turkey, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Tuesday.
Dozens of militants and Kurdish fighters were killed in clashes overnight, the Observatory said.
IS has pressed its assault on Kobani despite air strikes by the US-led coalition on its positions. The US has been bombing IS across Syria since last week and in neighbouring Iraq since early August.
The US military said American warplanes conducted three air strikes against IS militants in Syria near Kobani overnight and Wednesday, destroying an armed vehicle, an artillery piece and a tank.
US and British warplanes also carried out five air strikes in neighbouring Iraq, knocking out two armed vehicles, a militant-occupied building and two fighting positions north west of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which fell to IS in June.
One strike near the Haditha dam in Anbar province destroyed an armed vehicle, while another air raid outside Baghdad eliminated two armed vehicles.