It began with barrel bombs, continued with rockets and ended with the dead. Both Syrian government and Russian aircraft participated in an attack on U.N.-backed aid convoy over the course of three hours near the Syrian city of Aleppo on Monday night, according to a rescue worker who responded to the scene.
“It was like a circle of madness, a circle of hell,” says Ammar al-Selmo, head of the local branch of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, describing the bombardment of the area on Monday night. At least 12 people were killed in the attack on Monday night, which took place moments after the Syrian military declared an end to a tenuous week-old ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia. U.S. officials have blamed Russia for the attack, while Moscow has denied responsibility.
Even by the standards of the Syrian civil war, in which nearly a half a million people have been killed since 2011, the attack on the convoy shocked observers. The aid workers carried wheat flour, other food, blankets, diapers and health supplies for an estimated 78,000 people.
The U.N. and Red Crescent-organized convoy departed from territory controlled by the Syrian regime with the permission of the authorities, traveling to the town of Orem al-Kubra, in the rebel-held countryside west of Aleppo, one of a number of carefully-negotiated convoys delivering much-needed supplies across the various front lines of the bewilderingly complex Syrian conflict. This isn’t a war with a single front line—the sheer number of rebel groups, as well as ISIS, facing off against the government and sometimes each other means a patchwork of front lines. Each “cross-line” convoy requires careful coordination with both the Syrian regime and rebel groups.
The Syrian government and Russian authorities were notified by the U.N. in advance of the convoy and its route. David Swanson, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Amman said the convoy “received all proper authorizations from relevant authorities. Moreover, the convoy was clearly marked as humanitarian which makes this attack so horrific.”
“Critically, the route and location of the delivery were shared with relevant parties as part of the procedures,” he said in an email on Wednesday.
The convoy proceeded to a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in Orem al-Kubra, where it parked. Around 5 pm local time, the Syrian military in Damascus declared an end to the American-Russian ceasefire agreement. Around, the shelling began in in the town.
Selmo, the rescue official, was drinking tea on a balcony at the local branch of the civil defense organization when the bombing began. The building is around a kilometer from the aid warehouse, and he could see the first barrel bombs falling from what he identified as a Syrian regime helicopter.
Ten of the rescue workers approached the warehouse on foot. It was too dangerous to use their vehicles, he said, because of ongoing shelling in the area. When they first arrived they encountered a nightmarish scene. “We saw some injured calling, crying for help. We saw the fire everywhere. We smelled the smell of the barrel bomb,” he said—the crude bombs which are the hallmark of the regime’s air campaign, and often include makeshift explosives made from gasoline or fertilizer, leaving a distinct smell. A Syrian Red Crescent official, Omar Barakat was there, waving and calling for help, Selmo recalled. Barakat would later die in the attack.
The rescue party was forced to retreat because the shelling made the area simply too dangerous. Later in the evening tried a second time to approach on foot but had to pull back yet again. “We are obliged to withdraw, not to be killed,” says Selmo. In total, Selmo counted around 20 airstrikes on Monday evening, including barrel bombs and missiles fired from Russian jets.
The civil defense workers finally returned to the warehouse around 3 a.m. This time they brought vehicles and were able to put out the fires still burning at the warehouse. In a film captured on the scene, Selmo gestures at piles of scattered supplies. “The regime and Russia target this place,” he says as fires burn in the background.
In testimony given on video the next day, residents of Orem and other civil defense workers corroborated Selmo’s account, saying that both barrel bombs and missiles were used in the attack.
Russian officials’ account of the attack has shifted. On Wednesday Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to deny that either the Russian or the Syrian air force were involved. “Our military have already made the statements that our aviation did not work there. The Syrian aviation could not work as the attack on the convoy occurred during the hours of darkness,” he according to the TASS news agency.
The Russian military appeared to place blame on the U.S., claiming an American drone was flying over the area. Washington has denied that accusation. The Russian defense ministry said the convoy simply caught fire. “There are no craters and the exterior of the vehicles do not have the kind of damage consistent with blasts caused by bombs dropped from the air,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov in a statement by Reuters.
That statement was contradicted by photos and videos taken on the scene the next day. Images provided by Selmo show the remains of a missile lodged in pavement in the area. Missile tail units documented at the scene resemble Russian-made fragmentation bombs.