A large blast near Syria’s Idlib has killed at least 126 people in a suicide attack on a convoy carrying civilians from Shiite-populated besieged villages under a deal between the rebels and the regime, which may be now in danger after the deadly incident.
After long months of siege, bombing, and starvation the rebels were forced to sign a new deal with the Assad regime, which includes lifting the siege on two towns in rural Damascus in exchange for evacuating their citizens to northern Syria and allowing two rebel-besieged towns to be evacuated too.
As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting Syria, more than 2,350 people were bused out of the twin rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and another 5,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kefraya in the country’s north.
Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of 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 the leaves off trees. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.
Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. However, they were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said buses carrying residents left the majority Shia towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, long besieged by rebels in northwestern Idlib province on Friday.
Buses carrying mostly Sunni rebel fighters and their families simultaneously left the town of Madaya near Damascus, encircled by government forces and their allies, but were still passing through government-held areas, the Observatory said.
A member of one of the Shia parties earlier said 60 buses were moving through the town of al-Foua. A similar number of buses were leaving Madaya, the Observatory said.
Madaya and Zabadani are the latest in a constellation of towns once held by the opposition around Damascus to surrender to the regime.
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.
The suicide attack
The explosion on Saturday in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, targeted residents who were evacuated from the rebel-besieged towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province under the deal.
It shattered coaches and set cars on fire, leaving a trail of bodies including children, as the convoy waited in rebel territory near Aleppo.
A suicide bomber driving a van supposedly carrying aid supplies blew it up near the coaches, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.
“A van was distributing crisps,” one civilian evacuee told Zaman English News. “Children started running after it. It then exploded.”
At least 45 body bags were counted at the scene of the blast, while White Helmets rescuers, who operate in rebel-held areas, said at least 100 people had been killed. Many were also injured.
The Observatory on Sunday said at least 126 people were killed in the blast, raising a previous death toll of 112.
At least 68 children were among those killed, the monitor said.
The Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, had said on Saturday that at least 100 people were killed, while a report on Syrian state TV had given a death toll of 39.
Pictures posted on state media showed what appeared to be the aftermath of the explosion, with burned bodies and fires belching out thick black smoke.
Buses were blackened by the blast with their windows blown out.
“It appears that the explosion happened at the front of the convoy, which is about 70 buses long. Apparently it happened in an area where the sick and the injured were either being transferred or swapped,” journalist Hoda Abdel-Hamid said,
“We do understand that the casualties go into the dozens … among them women and children and some of the rebel fighters that were there to secure that convoy.”
Opposition activists said that the van that exploded belonged to Assad regime and was sent form areas under its role,
— شبكة الثورة السورية (@RevolutionSyria) April 16, 2017
Fear after the attack
Ahrar al-Sham, a key rebel group in Syria’s north, condemned the “cowardly” attack, saying that many of its members were killed in the blast. The group said it was willing to cooperate with an international probe to determine the culprits.
The deal had stipulated that in the first stage 8,000 people, including 2,000 pro-government fighters, leave the two towns. But only 5,000 left, including 1,300 fighters, the Observatory said.
Evacuees were left stranded as differences emerged over the number of loyalist fighters leaving, a rebel source said, refusing to elaborate as “negotiations are under way”.
Thousands of evacuees from Madaya and Zabadani were also stuck in government-controlled Ramousa, south of Aleppo.They were due to be transferred to rebel-held Idlib.
Mohamed Darwish, a doctor from Madaya, said that there was a growing fear among civilians aboard buses in Ramousa.
“There’s a lot of fear on our bus, especially because the regime soldiers are here and there is a crowd all around us,” he said.
“We hope the UN, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, all of those who supported this deal, will look after the civilians and ensure that they all arrive safely.”
But hours after the explosion, the transfer resumed – as dozens of buses, starting with the wounded, left to their respective destinations. Before midnight on Saturday, 100 of some 120 buses from both sides had already arrived at their destinations.
— شبكة الثورة السورية (@RevolutionSyria) April 16, 2017
SCD teams were able to recover 100+ dead bodies & attended to 55 injured after a car bomb targeted the displaced exchange point in Rashdien pic.twitter.com/t3dynqSnwB
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 15, 2017
Assad regime forces, helped by Russian air power and Iran-backed Shiite militias, has steadily ended armed opposition influence in the remaining pockets of resistance around the capital, in addition to many areas in Syria, using a series of army offensives and evacuation agreements, after years of siege, starvation, and daily bombing.
Assad regime describes the evacuation deals as “reconciliation” or “settlement agreements”, but rebels say they involve the forcible displacement of whole communities from opposition areas after years of siege and bombardment.
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.