A UN aid convoy delivering food relief to a rebel-held area near Aleppo has been targeted in an airstrike, just hours after the Syrian military declared an end to its observation of a week-old ceasefire agreed by the US and Russia.
The convoy of 31 trucks provided by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) was targeted by either Syrian or Russian aircraft while it was unloading food relief in the rural area of Urem al-Kubra, according to humanitarian officials and reports from the ground. 12 people, most of whom were drivers, were killed in the attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, voiced anger at the attack. “Our outrage at this attack is enormous ... the convoy was the outcome of a long process of permission and preparations to assist isolated civilians,” he said in a statement.
A local resident told Reuters by telephone that the trucks had been hit by around five missiles while parked in a centre belonging to the Syrian Red Crescent in Urem al-Kubra, and that the head of the centre and several others were badly injured.
At least 18 trucks in the convoy, and a Sarc warehouse, were hit, according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“We are deeply shocked that humanitarian workers and missions have yet again suffered from the brutality of this conflict,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, bombs and shells rained down on eastern Aleppo, home to 250,000 people cut off in an opposition-controlled area. The truce collapsed as global leaders convened at the UN in New York with the hope of consolidating the ceasefire and worked on longer-term peace efforts.
The US state department said that it was ready to extend the ceasefire, and issued a statement saying: “We will be consulting with our Russian counterparts to continue to urge them to use their influence on Assad to these ends.” Earlier in the day, the secretary of state, John Kerry, had pointed to the first deliveries of food aid under the ceasefire as signs of progress.
It appeared that one of the first of those aid deliveries, carrying food for 78,000 people from UN stores in Damascus across the lines to Urem al-Kubra, was targeted hours later by airstrikes.
“We have heard that this convoy with Sarc trucks with UN supplies was hit by aerial bombardment while it was unloading at the warehouse in Big Orem [Urem al-Kubra],” an aid official said. “All standard de-confliction had been done so it is inexplicable that such attack could take place.”
De-conflict refers to the process of informing armed groups of aid delivery plans so that aid convoys are not confused with military columns.
The official said there were no confirmed details on casualties from the attack on the aid convoy.
Earlier on Monday, the Syrian military statement, quoted by the state news agency Sana, said: “Syria’s army announces the end of the freeze on fighting that began at 7.00pm [16.00 GMT] on 12 September 2016 in accordance with the US-Russia agreement.”
The truce “was supposed to be a real chance to stop the bloodshed, but the armed terrorist groups flouted this agreement,” the statement said.
Speaking before reports emerged of the convoy attack, both Kerry and the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, accused Russia and its Syrian government allies of violating the truce.
“The reality, according to the information we are getting from the ground, is that violations of the ceasefire are acts of the regime,” Ayrault told reporters at the sidelines of a UN general assembly meeting in New York.
Referring to the Syrian army statement, Kerry said: “It would be good if they didn’t talk first to the press, but if they talked to the people who are actually negotiating this. And I think it’s time to end the grandstanding and time to do the real work of delivering on the humanitarian goods that are necessary for access.”
The Syrian army declaration followed the bombing of Syrian army positionsaround Deir ez-Zour by western coalition forces including the US, UK, Denmark and Australia. The countries involved have said the strikes were aimed at Islamic State frontline positions and unintentionally hit Syrian troops as they fought to take those positions on Tharda mountain.
Russia has said the strikes killed 62 Syrian soldiers and injured about 100 others, and the Syrian government has described the bombing as “on purpose and planned in advance”.
Kerry said Russia had not kept its side of the ceasefire agreement, because it had failed to ensure conditions for the delivery of food relief. This in turn meant conditions were not yet right for the planned establishment of a joint US-Russia air campaign against extremist groups.
He pointed out, however, that after six days’ delay, the ceasefire had finally made it possible to “see the real movement of humanitarian goods”. Aid officials confirmed that food relief was beginning to get through to Syria’s besieged cities.
Hours before the Syrian army announcement, Jan Egeland, the humanitarian adviser to the UN special envoy on Syria, said the obstacles that had thus far prevented two convoys of 20 trucks of aid reaching eastern Aleppo had been resolved and he expected them to leave the Turkey-Syria border for the besieged rebel-held suburbs at dawn on Tuesday.
“This is terrible. It has been ready to go five mornings in a row,” said Egeland, who is also secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “But we have great hopes it can go at dawn tomorrow.”
Egeland said another aid convoy from Damascus had reached Big Oren, a rebel-held rural area near Aleppo, and had unloaded aid for 78,000 people trapped there. Another convoy had left from a UN aid hub in Homs on Monday, bound with food for 84,000 people in opposition-held Talbiseh.
Those convoys crossed frontlines but not national borders and the fact that the Aleppo convoys had to cross the border from Turkey was one of the complicating factors that had held it up, Egeland said. Syria and Russia have both accused Turkey of supplying arms to terrorist groups in Syria.
“For a number of days it was just to agree on how these cross-border trucks would be sealed and monitored and be trusted by Russians and Syrians as they were going from Turkey into eastern Aleppo. That was one phase,” Egeland said.
The next phase was securing assurances of safe passage from government and rebel forces who were controlling the Castello road, the main route into eastern Aleppo.
“Then we had, surprisingl,y to convince the local council there this was the best way to feed and help the people there because they had objections: ‘don’t come this road, come another road and don’t come in a way as if you appear you are coming from the governmental side’,” Egeland said.
He said those bureaucratic issues appeared to have been resolved, but was aware that any resumption of fighting could delay the humanitarian deliveries once more.
“It hinges on so little now,” he said. “What I fear we now have is a window of opportunity that we hadn’t before and we’re not able to use that window of opportunity when we have it. But I think it will happen tomorrow at 5am. I think we’ll be able to go.”