Bombing of evacuees near Aleppo claims at least 126 lives

Attack on convoy taking residents from Syrian villages besieged by rebels

Eyewitness footage captures the aftermath as a bomb blast hits a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria. Video: Reuters

 

The death toll from a bomb attack on a crowded bus convoy outside Aleppo has reached at least 126 in the deadliest such incident in Syria in almost a year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Sunday.

Syrian rescue workers of the Civil Defence said that they had taken away at least 100 bodies from the site of Saturday’s blast, which hit buses carrying Shia residents as they waited to cross from rebel into government territory in an evacuation deal between the warring sides.

Rebel gunmen stand at the site of a blast that damaged several buses carrying evacuees. Photograph: Thiqa News/AP
Rebel gunmen stand at the site of a blast that damaged several buses carrying evacuees. Photograph: Thiqa News/AP

The British-based Observatory said the number was expected to rise. Those killed were mostly residents of the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, but included rebel fighters guarding the convoy, the Observatory said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which pro-Damascus media said was carried out by a suicide car bomber. Syria’s main armed opposition condemned the bombing, with groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army describing it as a “treacherous terrorist attack”.

Pope Francis, in an Easter message, also condemned the attack, describing it as “ignoble”, and asking God to bring healing and comfort to what he called the “beloved and martyred Syria”.

The convoy was carrying at least 5,000 people including civilians and several hundred pro-government fighters, who were granted safe passage out of the two Shia villages which are besieged by rebels.

Under the evacuation deal, more than 2,000 people, including rebel fighters, were granted safe passage out of Madaya, a town near Damascus besieged by government forces and their allies. That convoy was waiting at a bus garage in a government-held area on Aleppo’s outskirts, a few miles from where the attack took place. Madaya evacuees said they heard the blast.

Still image shows the scene of the blast. Photograph: Reuters TV
Still image shows the scene of the blast. Photograph: Reuters TV

Footage from the scene of the blast showed bodies, including those of fighters, lying alongside buses, some of which were charred and others gutted from the blast. Personal belongings could be seen dangling out of the windows. Fires raged from a number of vehicles as rescuers struggled to put them out.

The scenes were the last in the unyielding bloodshed Syrians are living through. Earlier this month at least 89 people were killed in a chemical attack as children foaming at the mouth and adults gasping for last breath were also caught on camera.

The bloody mayhem that followed the Saturday attack only deepened the resentment of the transfer, criticised as population engineering. It also reflected the chaos surrounding negotiations between the warring parties.

The United Nations did not oversee the transfer deal of the villages of Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, and Madaya and Zabadani, encircled by the government.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but pro-government media and the opposition exchanged accusations, each pointing to foreign interference or conspiracies undermining the deal.

State TV al-Ikhbariya said the attack was the result of a car bomb carrying food aid to be delivered to the evacuees in the rebel-held area — ostensibly crisps for the children — and accused rebel groups of carrying it out.

“I know nothing of my family. I can’t find them,” said a woman who appeared on al-Ikhbariya, weeping outside the state hospital in Aleppo where the wounded were transported.

Hours after the explosion, the transfer resumed, as dozens of buses, starting with the wounded, left for their respective destinations.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan called the bombing a “heinous crime”.

Rebel gunmen stand at the site of a blast that damaged several buses carrying evacuees. Photograph: Thiqa News/AP
Rebel gunmen stand at the site of a blast that damaged several buses carrying evacuees. Photograph: Thiqa News/AP

“It seems like an attack designed to provoke and to undo even limited local progress.

“It is an attack on people at their most vulnerable. I condemn it and call for those responsible to be brought to justice”, he said in a statement. (- Reuters, AP)