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Deadly Aleppo convoy attack threatens aid distribution in Syria Open in fullscreen

Martin Armstrong

Deadly Aleppo convoy attack threatens aid distribution in Syria

Aid is seen strewn across the floor in the town of Urum al-Kubra [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 September, 2016

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The United Nations has suspended aid distribution in Syria after an attack on an aid convoy in Urum al-Kubra but has vowed to continue working in the war-torn country.
The targeting of an aid convoy in Aleppo early this week has resulted in international condemnation, forced the United Nations to suspend their aid operations inside Syria, and threatened aid distribution within the war-torn country.

On Monday evening a convoy of 31 lorries carrying supplies for 78,000 people including vitamins and blankets, books and pencils for children, and medicine to treat burns and diabetes was targeted by purported airstrikes in the town of Urum al-Kubra, a town in the western Aleppo Governorate, northwestern Syria.

In the attack 18 of the 31 lorries were destroyed and 20 civilians were killed.

The dead included Omar Barakat, head of the local branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). Barakat is said to have died of his wounds as emergency services tried desperately to reach the area.

On Tuesday SARC, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Crescent Societies released a joint statement expressing "outrage" at the "horrific attack".

"We’re devastated by the deaths of so many people, including one of our colleagues. He was a committed and brave member of our family of committed staff and volunteers, working relentlessly to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people," said SARC President, Dr Abdulrahman Attar.

Speaking to The New Arab, Mona Kurdi, a spokesperson for SARC, noted that the attack on the convoy occurred in the vicinity of a SARC distribution centre.

"It was just a warehouse, everyone knew this," said Kurdi.

Laila Kiki, a media spokesperson for The Syria Campaign, which networks with aid groups inside Syria including Syrian Civil Defence or "White Helmets" units, expressed similar dismay.

Read more on The Syria Campaign here

"Aid distribution points like Urum al-Kubra are known locations, they are communicated to all parties in the conflict."

A convoy of 31 lorries carrying supplies for 78,000 people including vitamins and blankets, books and pencils for children, and medicine to treat burns and diabetes was targeted by purported airstrikes

End to US-Russian brokered ceasefire?

Humanitarian groups including Human Rights Watch have since called for investigations into the attack.

The attack appeared to signal the end of a Russian-US brokered ceasefire that came into force in Syria on the evening of September 12.

But on Tuesday morning, US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during an interval from a bleak meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) ministers in New York, insisted the ceasefire was "not dead."

Later in the day, Reuters reported that preliminary conclusions reached by US officials based on their intelligence pointed to Russian responsibility.

Videos recorded on the ground at the time show a dark still night sky interrupted by bright red-orange bursts of flame accompanied by loud reverberating bangs with panic stricken voices relaying that aid cars have been hit.

One media activist, who spoke to BBC Arabic, and witnessed the attack, said that the first strike against the convoy occurred at around 7 pm local time on Monday evening when a helicopter dropped a number of barrel bombs. Later attacks, the media activist said, saw rocket and machine gun fire from aircraft.

Videos recorded on the ground at the time show a dark still night sky interrupted by bright red-orange bursts of flame accompanied by loud reverberating bangs with panic stricken voices relaying that aid cars have been hit

Russia deny responsibility

However, Russia has denied any responsibility.

On Tuesday, Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that videos recorded at the scene showed no evidence of "munitions hitting the convoy," and instead attributed the destruction to "a fire".

UN officials say that the convoy travelling to Urum al-Kubra had received necessary clearances and all parties had been notified of its journey and agenda. The organisation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), revealed in a statement on Tuesday that it first became aware the aid convoy had come under attack at 8.15 pm local time.

A matter of hours earlier, Syrian state media published an article stating that the Syrian Army had declared the ceasefire over, citing 300 violations committed by rebel groups who had used the agreement a pretext to "mobilise and re-assemble."

In the immediate aftermath of the attack confusion spread over whether the aid convoy hit in Urum al-Kubra had travelled to Aleppo from the Turkish border.

Last week a convoy of 20 aid trucks carrying enough supplies to feed 185,000 people in rebel-held east Aleppo for a month remained stuck, awaiting necessary clearances.

However, an informed source within the UN told The New Arab that the targeted convoy had travelled to Urum al-Kubra from a UN hub in government-controlled west Aleppo.

"The convoy waiting at Bab al-Hawa never left," said the UN source.

Warplanes return to Aleppo skies

On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the attack, the familiar yet deadly sight of government helicopters and warplanes patrolling the skies, after a week of relative calm, returned to rebel-held east Aleppo.

Civilian casualties from government bombardment were reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in areas including the al-Sekkari, and al-Merja neighbourhoods and Janah al-Salama in the countryside east of Aleppo.

"It was calmer last week but today there was shelling at seven in the morning and it continued during the day," said Mohamad Abu Rajab, a nurse based in a hospital in eastern Aleppo supported by the Syrian American Medical Association.

"We lack equipment like CT scans and other things to treat the injured and there is nowhere for people here to go.

"There is no way out," continued Abu Rajab explaining that he often worked 20 hour shifts, rarely left the hospital, and was forced to work in a basement to avoid the devastating effects of aerial munitions routinely dropped on the city.

"The people, civilians – they want to live in peace," said Abu Rajab, noting that supplies of fuel for stoves and basic food were running low in the city leading prices to skyrocket.

We lack equipment like CT scans and other things to treat the injured and there is nowhere for people here to go
- Mohamad Abu Rajab, medic in opposition-held east Aleppo

Aid distribution threatened

On Tuesday Kevin Kennedy, OCHA’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said that the attacks in Urum al-Kubra were inexcusable, showed a "blatant disregard for the lives of humanitarian workers", and constituted a violation of "all basic principles of law and humanity."

The attacks have cast serious questions about how vital aid will be distributed to communities within Syria, such as the estimated 300,000 strong community of rebel-held east Aleppo.

Despite temporarily suspending operations in Syria OCHA has reaffirmed its commitment to aid distribution within Syria stating "United Nations humanitarian agencies are needed now more than ever, and will stay and deliver for the people of Syria regardless of where they are in the country."

Laila Kiki, of The Syria Campaign, noted with concern that that the humanitarian situation in rebel-held east Aleppo would only worsen if aid went undelivered.

"This attack seems like a new low. It is so sad, when we speak to Syrian children these days and ask them what they want to be when they grow up... they say they want to be either humanitarian workers or civil defence members, or man checkpoints as soldiers, or be airplane pilots. They have grown up amongst war," said Kiki, with a sigh.

It is so sad, when we speak to Syrian children these days and ask them what they want to be when they grow up... they say they want to be either humanitarian workers or civil defence members, or man checkpoints as soldiers, or be airplane pilots. They have grown up amongst war
- Laila Kiki, The Syria Campaign

On Tuesday night as international aid organisations, still in shock, came to terms of with events in Urum al-Kubra, the Union of Syrian Medical Organisations reported that four medics had been killed in yet another attack on the town of Khan Tuman, on the outskirts of Aleppo city.

"The situation will get worse," said Kiki, "Humanitarian aid is not a privilege."

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