Scores die as blast hits Syr­ian con­voys

Amid the trou­bled pop­u­la­tion trans­fer, at least 100 killed

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Sarah El Deeb and Philip Ossa

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.

GE­ORGE OURFALIAN/GETTY-AFP

Syr­ian chil­dren hurt in Saturday’s bomb­ing are treated in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Aleppo.

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