(Reuters) – Syria on Friday held funerals for scores of people killed in a drone attack on a graduation ceremony at a military academy in the Homs region the previous day, one of the bloodiest strikes against the military in more than 12 years of civil war.
Several weaponised drones hit the Homs Military Academy’s courtyard where families were gathered with the new officers on Thursday, minutes after defence minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas had left. Syria declared three days of mourning.
There have been no claims of responsibility for the attack. Syria’s defence and foreign ministries blamed what they described as terrorist groups, without specifying further, and vowed to respond “with full force”.
On Friday morning, coffins carrying victims and draped in the Syrian flag were sent out from the Homs Military Hospital. A military band played somberly and lined up troops gave the salute. At the scene, Abbas said the blood spilt was “precious.”
Syria’s health ministry said 89 people had been killed, including 31 women and five children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the Syrian conflict, put the toll at above 120.
Throughout the night and into the early morning on Friday, Syrian government troops blasted artillery shells into rebel-held territory in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, according to the Observatory and the civil defence group known as the White Helmets, which operate in opposition-held areas.
At least 12 civilians have been killed in that bombardment, according to the Observatory. Authorities have cancelled group Friday prayers, fearing that mosques could be attacked.
Thursday’s strike was an unprecedented use of drones against government forces in the war, which began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and spiralled into a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
In June, a drone attacked Assad’s hometown of Qardaha in the province of Latakia. But Thursday’s attack involving a swarm of drones represented the deadliest and most coordinated use of the weapon yet against the government side.
Assad has drawn heavily on military backing from Russia, Iran, and Tehran-backed militias during the war, after the Syrian army was rocked by defections early in the conflict. Russia has helped in efforts to strengthen the Syrian military.