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Over 650 children were killed in Syria last year, UNICEF says

At least 652 children were killed in Syria in 2016, making it the worst year yet for the country's rising generation, the United Nations' child relief agency said Monday.

Between children in Syria and refugees elsewhere, millions said to be out of school

Internally displaced children stand at the entrance to their tent, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Feb. 9. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

At least 652 children were killed in Syria in 2016, making it the worst year yet for the country's rising generation, the United Nations' child relief agency said Monday.

There was no letup to attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, parks and homes last year as the Syrian government, its opponents and the allies of both sides showed callous disregard for the laws of war.

UNICEF said at least 255 children were killed in or near schools last year and 1.7 million youngsters are out of school. One of every three schools in Syria is unusable, some because armed groups occupy them. An additional 2.3 million Syrian children are refugees elsewhere in the Middle East.

The figures come in a UNICEF report released two days before the sixth anniversary of the popular uprising that escalated into civil war.

Syrian children play during a sandstorm in the once rebel held Karm al-Jabal neighbourhood in the old part of the northern city of Aleppo on March 10. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Children were among the first victims of the government's brutal crackdown. On March 15, 2011, residents in the southern city of Daraa marched to demand the release of teenage students arrested for writing anti-government slogans on their school's walls. They were tortured in detention.

The report warns that coping mechanisms and medical care are eroding quickly in Syria, driving children into child labour, early marriage and combat. Dozens are dying from preventable diseases.

A report released a week ago by the international charity Save the Children said Syrian youngsters are showing signs of "toxic stress" that can lead to lifelong health problems, struggles with addiction and mental disorders lasting into adulthood.

The use of child soldiers is on the rise in Syria, UNICEF said. At least 851 children were recruited by armed factions last year, more than twice compared to the year before.

Children across the country are at risk of severe injury while playing around land mines and cluster munitions. Demining operations in opposition-held areas have been severely hampered by inaccessibility to outside experts.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian Refugee Council said that as the sixth year of Syria's conflict nears its end, 13.5 million people remain in need of aid in dire and deteriorating conditions. Half as many are displaced in their own country, with almost five million refugees in neighbouring countries where conditions keep getting increasingly desperate.

"Over the last year in Syria, all parties involved have blocked vital aid supplies and millions have become poorer, hungrier and more isolated from assistance and from the world," said NRC's Mideast director, Carsten Hansen.

"We join the rest of the international humanitarian community on this milestone of shame to voice outrage at the plight of millions of civilians living in a downward spiral of despair," the organization added.

It said parties to the conflict continue using siege and starvation as a weapon of war. Around five million people remain trapped in areas of active fighting, including almost one million in besieged areas who have no access to sustained humanitarian assistance.

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