A senior U.N. official called for an investigation into an airstrike on a Syrian refugee camp that killed dozens of people Thursday, saying the attack could amount to a war crime.
At least 30 people were killed at the Kamouna camp near Sarmada in northern Syria’s Idlib province and dozens wounded in the airstrike, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of anti-Assad activists.
Another activist monitoring group, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll lower, at 28, including women and children, but warned their numbers would likely rise.
Stephen O’Brien, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said suspicion for the attack will fall on the Syrian government, and the U.N. will hold accountable whoever is responsible for this “abominable act.”
“Be in no doubt that all these terrible acts, wherever they happen and whoever perpetrates them, will not be forgotten, and the people who perform them will be held to account,” O’Brien said.
Deadly strike after cease-fire
Only hours after Russian and Syrian officials confirmed a cease-fire had been extended to Aleppo, and opposition politicians said warplanes — either the Syrian government or Russian — carried out a deadly airstrike 30 kilometers from Syria’s onetime commercial capital on a refugee camp close to the border with Turkey.
Activists say two missiles hit the camp.
Photographs posted by LCC activists on social media sites showed tents destroyed at the camp.
Josh Earnest, U.S. President Barack Obama’s spokesman, said of the refugees: “These individuals are in the most desperate situation imaginable, and there is no justification for carrying out military action targeting them.”
At the U.S. State Department, officials said they were seeking more details.
”We have seen the reports, including accusations that these were regime strikes,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We are looking into them to try to get more details on what happened, but there is absolutely no justification for attacks on civilians in Syria.
“We have said this many times, unfortunately, over the last week or so, but especially on what appears to have been a refugee camp, so really targeting the most vulnerable citizens in Syria,” Toner said.
Asked whether the airstrike bolsters the argument rebels and Turkey have made for months that safe and no-fly zones need to be established to protect more than 100,000 internally displaced Syrians in northern Syria, Toner said: “We don’t want to set up specific no-fly zones. What we are working towards and what we are trying to get in place here is a general cessation of hostilities that we believe can endure and be strengthened over the long haul.”
Activists remained adamant the regime was behind the airstrike — not the first time Syrian government warplanes have been accused of attacking refugee camps.
But they said they could not tell whether the fighter-bombers were from the Syrian Air Force or Russian military aircraft. Photographs of the aftermath of the strike showed fires burning, and the charred remains of blue tents.
Telegram to Moscow
The Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed opposition group, also blamed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who on Thursday sent a telegram to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Syrian state media said the telegram thanked Moscow for its military support and vowed to accept nothing less than outright victory. Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory” and “crushing the aggression.”
The government-owned Syrian Arab News Agency ran no report on the airstrike on the camp for internally displaced Syrians, focusing instead on Assad’s congratulatory message to Moscow, sent on Russia’s Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Syrian president noted in his cable that Aleppo has become like Stalingrad, promising that “despite the brutality and cruelty of the enemy, and the great sacrifices and pains, our cities, towns, people and army will not be satisfied until they defeat the enemy and achieve victory serving the interests of Syria, the region, and the world.”
The Syrian regime has pledged to abide by a temporary truce when it comes to Aleppo. The “regime of calm,” as Damascus described it, came into effect at one a.m. (2200 GMT on Wednesday) for 48 hours, after two weeks of the most intense fighting the city, which is divided between the government and rebels, has seen in more than a year.
State Department spokesman Toner held out hope the Aleppo truce will get extended.
“They have given it a 48-hour time limit. We will let that delay proceed, but what we would like to see is of course this [cease-fire] continue and be as open-ended as possible,” he added.
Syrian army spokesmen accused al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and Islamist factions of violating the temporary truce in Aleppo, which was brokered by Washington and Moscow, accusing them of continuing indiscriminate shelling of government-held districts.
But locals reported that overnight clashes had eased, and shops started to open in the calm.
But Kamouna camp, which shelters more than 2,000 refugees, was anything but that when two warplanes struck it.
The camp is far from any major towns or cities.
Mamun al-Khatib, director of the Aleppo-based pro-rebel Shahba Press news agency, accused the Syrian government of the attack.
“Two regime aircraft fired four missiles on the camp,” Khatib said. “Two rockets fell near, causing people to panic, and two more fell inside, where a dozen tents caught fire.”
A purported video of the scene uploaded to the Internet by activists shows women wailing over the scorched bodies of children. “White Helmet” emergency workers can be seen trying to put out fires.
Idlib province is mainly controlled by Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamist faction Ahar al-Sham. Damascus and Moscow say both groups are terrorists.
Al-Qaida’s affiliate is excluded from a cease-fire agreed on in February, also brokered by Russia and the U.S.
On Wednesday, before the partial truce came into effect, Russian artillery units participated for the first time in ground fighting in Aleppo, which has suffered two weeks of blistering government airstrikes.
Dozens of people were killed in the city as rebels advanced into Syrian government-controlled western districts, according to political activists. The insurgents were forced to withdraw after several hours of intense fighting.
The rebel assault was mounted to disrupt regime forces, say rebel commanders who have long warned of a major offensive in the coming weeks to wrest back the battered insurgent-held districts of a city that remains a key battlefield prize for the government.