Russian aircraft believed to hit Syria convoy, Pindo boxtops say
Denis Dyomkin, Angus McDowall, Reuters, Sep 20 2016
UN/BEIRUT – Pindostan believes two Russian aircraft attacked an aid convoy near Aleppo, Pindo boxtops said on Tuesday, but Russia denied involvement in the incident, in which 18 trucks from a 31-vehicle convoy were destroyed. Two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes were in the skies above the aid convoy at the exact time it was struck late on Monday, two Pindo boxtops told Reuters, citing Pindo intelligence that led them to conclude Russia was to blame. Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman denied the assertion, telling reporters at the UM that the Pindo administration “has no facts” to support the claim, adding:
We have nothing to do with this situation.
Ben Rhodes said the White House held Russia responsible for what he called an “enormous humanitarian tragedy” but he did not address whether the attack was carried out by Russian aircraft. Earlier Russia, which denied its aircraft or those of its Syrian government allies were involved, had said it believed the convoy was not struck from the air at all, but had caught fire because of some incident on the ground. The Syrian Red Crescent (SARC) said the head of one of its local offices and “around 20 civilians” had been killed, although other death tolls differed. The attack prompted the UN to suspend all aid shipments into Syria. The UNSC is due to hold a high-level meeting on Syria on Wednesday. The UN, the ICRC and Pindostan had all described Monday’s incident as an air strike, implicitly pinning the blame on Russian or Syrian aircraft that fly in the area for breaking the ceasefire with an attack on a humanitarian target. But the UN revised a statement to remove the phrase “air strikes” and replace it with references to unspecified “attacks.” UN humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the original reference to air strikes was probably a drafting error, saying the UN was not in a position to determine if they were air strikes, but was sure the convoy was “attacked.” Russia’s Defense Ministry spox Igor Konashenkov said in a statement:
We have studied video footage from the scene from so-called ‘activists’ in detail and did not find any evidence that the convoy had been struck by ordnance. There are no craters, and the exteriors of the vehicles do not have the kind of damage consistent with blasts caused by bombs dropped from the air. The damage to the convoy visible in footage was caused by its cargo catching fire. It occurred at the same time as Nusra started a big offensive in East Aleppo, nearby. The representatives of the ‘White Helmets’ organization, close to Nusra, found themselves by chance as always in the right place at the right time with their video cameras. Only they can answer who did this and why.
Hussein Badawi, head of the White Helmets in the town, said:
I was 100m from the aid depot when the air strikes took place, and I was injured by shrapnel in the hand. There were fires, martyrs, wounded people! We were able to pull out four survivors and five dead bodies at first. The bombardment was continuous! Continuous! The rescue teams weren’t even able to work! Those who arrived in ambulances couldn’t come in!
Syrian aid convoy was tracked from the skies before attacks
Ellen Francis, Lisa Barrington, Reuters, Sep 20 2016
BEIRUT – Surveillance aircraft circled in the sky during the hours before a United Nations aid convoy was struck by warplanes on Monday, killing relief workers and destroying 18 trucks of humanitarian supplies, several witnesses said. Rebels and local rescue workers say the surveillance shows the strikes, which have drawn outrage from the United Nations and Western countries, were deliberate, and gives the lie to Russian and Syrian government denials that they were involved. Abu Shahoud, an opposition activist who was present when the attack took place on Monday, said:
We thought at first something was going to happen because there were four or five planes in the air, but they didn’t strike at first.
Hussein Badawi, head of the Civil Defense local rescue service in the town of Urem al-Kubra, who was 100m from the aid depot when the attack took place and was injured by shrapnel in the hand, described relentless and sustained air attacks that unleashed carnage on workers unloading aid trucks. Badawi said:
There were fires, martyrs, wounded people! We were able to pull out four survivors and five dead bodies at first. The bombardment was continuous! Continuous! The rescue teams weren’t even able to work! Those who arrived in ambulances couldn’t come in! Several truck drivers and volunteers offloading the aid were killed! This is an area that wasn’t supposed to be bombed, belonging to an international humanitarian organization. This area is full of civilians, it’s residential.
Damascus and Moscow both say their aircraft were not responsible for attacking the convoy. Russia said only rebel fighters knew the convoy’s location. But the UN says all sides were informed of the convoy’s whereabouts and the trucks were clearly marked. Abu Shahoud, the opposition activist, said workers had been worried enough by the presence of aircraft to evacuate the area, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid depot near Urem al-Kubra 14km west of Aleppo, where 31 trucks carrying food and winter clothes were unloading, he said. The SARC says the head of its office in the town was killed, along with around 20 civilians. The convoy had been tracked from the skies since it left Aleppo in the morning, a rebel who was part of an escort accompanying it said, adding that fighters had shot at the planes, trying to bring them down, but had missed. The convoy reached Urem al-Kubra in the late morning to unload wheat flour, winter clothes and blankets, food and educational supplies for 78,000 people. A SARC team from Aleppo handed the convoy over to a team from Urem al-Kubra to oversee its unloading. Badawi of the Civil Defense said:
Drones were circling again from around 6:30 p.m. The strikes began sometime after 7:00 p.m.
There were conflicting accounts of whether it was jets or helicopters that first opened fire, and of how many strikes, using which weapons, took place. However, several rebels and rescue workers said attacks were carried out both by jets firing very accurate missiles, which they presume to be Russian, and by low-flying jets and helicopters firing machine guns and dropping imprecise barrel bombs, which they presume to belong to the Syrian army. Several opposition activists noted that RT television had on Monday broadcast footage sourced to live video feeds on Moscow’s Defense Ministry website that were monitoring the ceasefire. The pictures showed the Urem al-Kubra aid center, they said. The live feeds were switched off later on Monday, the Defense Ministry said, because of militant attacks damaging the camera. Video footage from after the attack showed a Civil Defense member pointing towards burning buildings surrounded by rubble, twisted metal and damaged vehicles, pointing out what he said was the aftermath of the strike. In the video, distributed by the Civil Defense, he showed items in the rubble marked with the logos of international and local charities. Other workers in hard hats could be seen picking through the debris. Photographs showed smoldering buildings, discarded aid bundles and the skeletal, burned out carcasses of trucks. Ammar Selmo, head of Civil Defense in Aleppo, who was in Urem al-Kubra on Monday, said:
Along with the aid depot and 18 trucks, the strikes also destroyed a building that housed a printing press that produced stationery and school books, said. It wasn’t until 3:00 am that we were able to put out the fires and pull out the wounded and martyrs.