BEIRUT (AP) — A missile struck a school building in northwestern Syria on Tuesday morning, killing eight civilians, opposition activists said, as government forces captured a key village held by al-Qaida insurgents in the war-torn country’s last rebel stronghold.
Syrian government troops also surrounded a Turkish observation post in the area, the activists said. They said the village of Jarjanaz was captured from al-Qaida late Monday.
Syrian forces launched a wide ground offensive last week into the northwestern province of Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The offensive follows weeks of bombardment that has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The United Nations estimates that some 60,000 people have fled from the area, heading south, after the bombings intensified earlier this month. Thousands more have fled further north toward the Turkish border in recent days, where the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. Idlib province is home to some 3 million civilians.
More than 40 villages and hamlets have come under government control in southern parts of Idlib since Thursday, according to activists and Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. The military statement called on civilians to stay away from militant positions and asked them to come to government-held areas if they can.
The activists blamed Russia — Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main ally in the war — for Tuesday’s missile attack, which hit the Jobas village school. Among the eight killed were five children and a woman, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian citizen journalist Hussein Khattab reported the same death toll. The school building was used by people displaced by violence in other parts of the country, the Observatory and Khattab said.
Syrian troops have been pushing toward the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, which sits on a highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Assad’s forces appear determined to eventually reopen the strategic highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.
The Observatory said the troops are now about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Maaret al-Numan, adding that government forces advancing from the east have surrounded the Turkish observation post near the village of Surman.
Turkey is a strong backer of Syrian rebels and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement brokered last year with Russia. The post near Surman is the second that has been encircled by Syrian troops this year.