UN suspends all convoys in Syria after attack on aid trucks

Rebel groups blame Russia, but Moscow denies that it or Al Assad regime bombed vehicles

Image Credit: AP
This image provided by the Syrian anti-government group Aleppo 24 news, shows a vest of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent hanging on a damaged vehicle, in Aleppo, Syria.
Gulf News

Beirut: The UN humanitarian aid agency on Tuesday suspended all convoys in Syria following deadly air strikes on aid trucks the previous night that activists said killed at least 12 people, mostly truck drivers and Red Crescent workers.

The attack plunged Syria’s US-Russia-brokered cease-fire further into doubt. The Syrian military, just hours earlier, had declared the week-long truce had failed. The US said it was prepared to extend the truce deal and Russia — after blaming rebels for the violations — suggested it could still be salvaged.

It was not clear who was behind the attack late on Monday, which sent a red fireball into the sky in the dead of night over a rural area in Aleppo province. Both Syrian and Russian aircraft operate over the province, while the US-led coalition targets Daesh in other parts of the country.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that Russian and Syrian air forces were not involved in air strikes on the convoy.

“All information on the whereabouts of the convoy was available only to the militants controlling these areas,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in comments read on Russian state-run Rossiya 24 television channel.

Syria’s army also denied responsibility. “There is no truth to media reports that the Syrian army targeted a convoy of humanitarian aid in Aleppo province,” state media said, citing a military source.

In Geneva, spokesman Jens Laerke of OCHA said on Tuesday that further aid delivery would hold pending a review of the security situation in Syria in the aftermath of the air strikes.

Laerke called it “a very, very dark day... for humanitarians across the world.”

But a member of the Syrian Civil Defence — a group of volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets — criticised the UN humanitarian aid agency for suspending the convoys.

Ebrahim Al Haj said on Tuesday that Syrian civilians will pay the price for the decision — and that the UN should have condemned the attacks on the convoy rather than suspending aid.

Laerke, the UN aid coordinator, said the Syria government had granted needed authorisations in recent days to allow for aid convoys to proceed inside Syria.

Humanitarian UN aid deliveries had stalled in recent weeks amid continued fighting, and the truce had not paved the way for expanded convoys as initially expected.

Rami Abdul Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the civil war, and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa Al Halabi both said the attack killed 12 people.

Among the victims was Omar Barakat who headed the Red Crescent in the town where the attack occurred, they said.

The Syrian Civil Defence confirmed that casualty figure.

The convoy, part of a routine interagency dispatch operated by the Syrian Red Crescent, was hit in rural western Aleppo province. The White Helmets first responder group posted images of a number of vehicles on fire and a video of the attack showed huge balls of fire in a pitch black area, as ambulances arrive on the scene.

UN officials said the UN and Red Crescent convoy was delivering assistance to 78,000 people in the town of Uram Al Kubra, west of the city of Aleppo.

Initial estimates indicate that about 18 of the 31 trucks in the convoy were hit, as well as the Red Crescent warehouse in the area.

When asked who was behind the air strikes, Abdul Rahman said Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s “regime does not have the capabilities to carry out such airstrikes within two hours.”

He said the airstrikes on Aleppo province, including the ones that hit the convoy, were part of some 40 air raids that lasted about two hours — starting at around 7.30pm on Monday — and that “it was mostly Russian warplanes who carried out the air raid”.

Al Halabi said that rebels in Aleppo province also claimed Russian aircraft were behind the attack.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group in Syria, said Russia’s air forces and government warplanes dropped 25 bombs damaging some 20 trucks and destroying the Red Crescent warehouse in Uram Al Kubra.

Abdul Rahman said the convoy of about 30 trucks had crossed earlier from a government-controlled area and were hit from the air hours after they reached the Red Crescent warehouse.

He said that some of the trucks were already emptied when the attack occurred and that in all, 20 trucks were destroyed or damaged.

A paramedic, speaking in a video released by Aleppo 24 News, a media collective, blamed Russian and government warplanes as well as Syrian army helicopter gunships that he said dropped barrel bombs.

Piles of white bags filled with flour were seen near one of the trucks.

Photos posted by Aleppo 24 News showed what appears to be an SUV riddled with shrapnel, its windshield blown out. Another one shows damaged trucks filled with bags parked in front what appeared to be a building. Others show three damaged trucks parked on the road.

Jan Egeland, humanitarian aid coordinator in the office of the UN envoy for Syria, said in a text message that the convoy was “bombarded”.

Egeland added: “It is outrageous that it was hit while offloading at warehouses.”

UN Humanitarian Chief Stephen O’Brien called on “all parties to the conflict, once again, to take all necessary measures to protect humanitarian actors, civilians, and civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian law.”

A Red Crescent official in Syria confirmed the attack, but said no further information was available.

Also on Tuesday, the Observatory said government forces launched an offensive in the Handarat area, just north of the city of Aleppo, in what appears to be an attempt to tighten the siege on rebel-held parts of Syria’s largest city.

Apart from the 12 killed in the convoy attack, 22 civilians died in attacks Monday across the province, according to the Observatory and Aleppo 24 News.