BEIRUT – Gunmen abducted six Red Cross workers and a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer after stopping their convoy early Sunday in northwestern Syria, a spokesman said.
Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said the assailants snatched the seven aid workers from their convoy near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province around 11:30 a.m. as the team was returning to Damascus. He declined to provide the nationalities of the six ICRC employees, and said it was not clear who was behind the attack.
Syria’s state news agency, quoting an anonymous official, said the gunmen opened fire on the ICRC team’s four vehicles before seizing the Red Cross workers. The news agency blamed “terrorists,” a term the government uses to refer to those opposed to President Bashar Assad.
Schorno said the team of seven had been in the field since Oct. 10 to assess the medical situation in the area and to look at how to provide medical aid. He said the part of northern Syria where they were seized “by definition is a difficult area to go in,” and the team was traveling with armed guards.
Press freedom advocate Reporters without Borders calls Syria “the most dangerous country in the world” for journalists, with 25 reporters killed and at least 33 imprisoned since the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011.
The conflict also has taken a toll on the aid community. The ICRC said in August that 22 Syrian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in the country since the conflict began. Some were deliberately targeted, while others killed in crossfire, the group said.
Syria’s bloody conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and forced more than 2 million Syrians to flee the country.
Outside Damascus, hundreds of civilians, some carried on stretchers, fled the besieged rebel-held suburb of Moadamiyeh on Saturday and Sunday following a temporary cease-fire in the area, activists and officials said.
It was not immediately clear who brokered the halt in fighting between rebels and government forces, but the temporary truce marked a rare case of coordination between the opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
“It’s (been) an area of military operations for months, so to see this halt of fire, and to see this exodus of people, means there’s a high level cooperation – not regular cooperation,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Neither Syrian officials nor activists close to rebels would discuss the coordination.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Saturday that 2,000 women and children left the suburb for temporary housing in the nearby suburb of Qudsaya.
An official with the Syrian Red Crescent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said another 1,000 people were evacuated Sunday. Those figures could not be independently verified.
For the thousands of people trapped in Moadamiyeh, the humanitarian situation has been deteriorating for months. In a bid to squeeze rebels there, Syrian forces blocked food and supplies from entering the district on the western edge of Damascus.
The suburb’s residents have been hit hard. Activists from the Moadamiyeh Media Center reported six people died of starvation in September: two women and four children.
In Damascus itself, a double car bombing targeted the state TV building in central Umayyad Square, Syria’s official news agency said. State TV said several pedestrians were wounded in the attack, but there was no further immediate word on casualties.