20 estimated dead, blankets and clothes for 78,000 people set ablaze, and one cease fire destroyed. On September 19, a humanitarian aid convoy was attacked while delivering food, flour, medical supplies, blankets and clothes to Urum al-Kubra in a rebel-held region of Syria.
United States spokespeople for both the Pentagon and the White House have pointed to either Russia or Syria as the attacking force. Both have denied responsibility, according to the New York Times. However, accounts from witnesses on the ground may suggest otherwise.
The convoy departed from government-held territory in Syria at about 10:50 a.m., the Times reported. The 31 trucks, while not bearing the shield of United Nations staff members, were clearly identified with both United Nations and Red Crescent logos.
The Red Crescent is a division of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. While the Red Cross is a reversal of the colors of the flag of Switzerland, the Red Crescent is a reversal of the flag of the Ottoman Empire and is recognized by 33 Islamic states.
With these emblems denoting its humanitarian nature, the convoy travelled towards rebel-held territory. At the border, Red Crescent volunteers from Aleppo gave the trucks over to their comrades from the rebel-held territories.
As the New York Times reports, these aid workers were led by Mr. Omar Barakat, a respected middleman between aid groups and staunch Islamists who disagree with the symbols chosen by aid workers.
In this case, Mr. Barakat had coordinated with the mujahedeen army, which had previously accepted aid from the United States. The convoy reached its destination at 2 p.m. that day.
Russia has acknowledged that the convoy was tracked by one of their drones, but Russian media footage suggests the drone continued surveillance longer than the Russian government has admitted.
Ismail Barakat, Omar’s nephew who stopped by the convoy at about 3 p.m., stated, “Reconnaissance planes were clearly seen in the sky. They were monitoring the convoy for the whole afternoon.”
The attack started just after 7 p.m. with a few large explosions that locals reported sounded like barrel bombs, or homemade explosives packed with shrapnel typically deployed by Syrian government helicopters. Waves of attacks continued to fall on the convoy.
About 40 minutes later, Abu Mohammad, who watches the skies and warns locals about incoming attacks, identified first a plane departing from a Russian base and then a Russian Su-24 taking off from another base, both headed towards Urum al-Kubra.
A rescue group named the White Helmets moved in the flaming convoy at roughly 8 p.m. intent on saving the injured and carrying out the dead. One member of the White Helmets, Ammar al-Salmo, described the scene: “We saw fire, injured people, human parts, some people burning in their vehicles, drivers.”
However, the rescue workers soon found themselves targeted and were forced to retreat. Despite having sighted a wounded Mr. Barakat waving for help, the intensity of an aircraft firing at the rescue workers forced them to abandon the field.
“We had to leave Omar,” Mr. Salmo explains simply. Mr. Salmo and others returned to the scene on the morning of September 20. Through their photographs of the destruction, damage and debris consistent with barrel bombs, Russian airdrop bombs, and Russian air-to-ground rockets have been identified.
As a result of this incident, which Abby Stoddard of Humanitarian Outcomes called “unprecedented in scale,” the UN has suspended all aid convoys to Syria. UN officials have also suggested that the bombing may be considered a war crime.
Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, described the attacks as “sickening, savage, and apparently deliberate.” This attack comes just hours after the Syrian government declared the end of the September 12 ceasefire, which was meant to bring humanitarian aid to Syria, negotiated by the US and Russia.