A UN humanitarian aid convoy near the Syrian city of Aleppo was hit by air strikes on Monday in what UN officials say could amount to a war crime.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said initial reports indicate that many were killed or seriously injured in the attack in northern Syria, including Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 were killed in the attack, mostly truck drivers and Red Crescent workers. The Syrian Civil Defense, the volunteer first responder group also known as the ‘White Helmets’, confirmed the casualty figure.
At least 18 of the 31 trucks in the critical convoy were hit, which was carrying aid for approximately 78,000 people.
A warehouse belonging to the aid agency Red Crescent was also hit and a Red Crescent health clinic was reported to be seriously damaged, he said.
O’Brien called the attacks “sickening” and said he was “disgusted and horrified”. The UN chief underscored that all groups operating in the region had received notification of the convoy.
There is no excuse “for waging war on brave and selfless humanitarian workers”, he said, warning that if they were deliberately targeted “it would amount to a war crime”.
UN officials said the UN and Red Crescent convoy was delivering assistance to the town of Uram al-Kubra, west of the city of Aleppo.
Jan Egeland, humanitarian aid coordinator at the UN mission for Syria, told The Associated Press in a text message that the convoy was “bombarded”.
“It is outrageous that it was hit while offloading at warehouses”, Egeland added.
Elsewhere at least 20 civilians, including a 1-year-old girl, were killed in fresh airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Aleppo and surrounding areas, according to the Observatory.
And Russia said government positions in southwestern Aleppo came under attack from militant groups, including a massive barrage of rockets.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby called the UN convoy attack an “egregious violation” of a week-long ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow, and said the US “will reassess the future prospects for cooperation with Russia.”
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said the deadly airstrikes were “chiefly the responsibility of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime. He told FRANCE 24, “Aleppo and its residents are under threat, humanitarian aid can’t get there, and the bombings continue.”
Ceasefire in doubt
The airstrikes on the aid convoy came as Syrian military sources declared that the ceasefire had effectively failed.
The truce’s future will be at the top of the agenda of a meeting Tuesday morning of about 20 countries supporting opposing sides in the Syria conflict, including the US and Russia, that belong to the International Syria Support Group.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that the first stage of the truce — which called for a week of calm and the delivery of humanitarian aid to several besieged communities — had never really come to fruition. Earlier in the day, Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that the truce was “holding but fragile.”
The State Department initially said it was ready to work with Russia to strengthen terms of the agreement and expand deliveries of humanitarian aid. Spokesman Kirby called on Russia, which is responsible for ensuring Syria’s compliance, to clarify the Syrian position.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement late Monday night appeared to signal that the deal could still be salvaged, saying that the failure by the rebels in Syria to respect the cease-fire threatens to thwart the agreement.
The ceasefire came into effect on Sept. 12. Under terms of the agreement, the successful completion of seven days of calm and humanitarian aid deliveries would be followed by an ambitious second-stage plan to set up a joint US-Russian coordination centre to plan military strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group and a powerful al Qaeda-linked militant faction.
But from the start, the truce has been beset by difficulties and mutual accusations of violations.
Aid deliveries to the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo have not reached their destination. The UN accused the government of obstructing the delivery while Russian officials said rebels opened fire at the delivery roads.
Rebel forces and activists say government planes have bombed areas that are under the truce agreement, including rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
At least 22 civilians were killed in government bombings over the last week, according to the Syrian Observatory, and four civilians were killed in government-held areas.