Scores die as blast hits Syrian convoys
Amid the troubled population transfer, at least 100 killed
BEIRUT — A stalled population transfer resumed Saturday after a deadly explosion killed at least 100, including children, government supporters and opposition fighters, at an evacuation point — adding new urgency to the widely criticized operation.
The blast ripped through a bus depot in the al-Rashideen area where thousands of government loyalists evacuated the day before waited restlessly for hours, as opposition fighters guarded the area while negotiators bickered over the completion of the transfer deal.
Only yards away, hundreds of evacuees from prorebels areas also loitered.
Footage from the scene showed bodies, including those of fighters, alongside buses, some of which were charred from the blast. Fires raged from a number of vehicles as rescuers struggled to put them out.
The scenes were the latest in the unyielding bloodshed Syrians are living through. Earlier this month, at least 89 people were killed in a chemical attack.
The mayhem that followed the Saturday attack only deepened the resentment of the transfer criticized 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 Kfarya, besieged by the rebels, and Madaya and Zabadani, encircled by the government.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but progovernment media and the opposition each pointed 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 the evacuees in the rebelheld area and accused rebel groups of carrying it out. A TV broadcaster from the area said: “There can be no life with the terrorist groups.”
“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 taken.
Ahrar al-Sham, the rebel group that negotiated the deal, denounced the “cowardly” attack, saying a number of opposition fighters as well as government supporters were killed in the attack. The group said the attack only serves to deflect the attention from government “crimes” and said it was ready to cooperate with an international probe to determine who did it.
Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for Ahrar al-Sham, said about 30 rebel gunmen were killed in the blast.
The Syrian Civil Defense in Aleppo province, also known as the White Helmets, said their volunteers pulled at least 100 bodies from the site of the explosion. White Helmets member Ibrahim Alhaj said the 100 fatalities documented by the rescuers included many children and women, as well as fighters.
Syrian state media said at least 39 were killed, including children. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 43, adding that it would likely rise because of the extensive damage. A Facebook page belonging to the pro-government Foua and Kfarya villages said all those in three buses were killed or are still missing while a rebel official said at least 30 opposition fighters who were guarding the evacuees were killed in the blast.
Hours after the explosion, the transfer resumed.
The explosion hit the alRashideen area, a rebel-controlled district outside Aleppo city where evacuation buses carrying nearly 5,000 people from the northern rebel-besieged villages of Foua and Kfraya were stuck. Residents from the two villages had been evacuated Friday, along with more than 2,000 from Madaya, an opposition-held town outside of Damascus besieged by government forces.
The coordinated evacuations delivered fighters and residents from two years of siege and hunger, but moved Syria closer to a division of its national population by loyalty and sect.
Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of a government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus’ authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad’s rule.
Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating tree leaves.
Foua and Kfarya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. They were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.
Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines.
Syrian children hurt in Saturday’s bombing are treated in government-controlled Aleppo.