Gunmen abducted six Red Cross workers and a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer after stopping their convoy early Sunday in northwestern Syria, a spokesman said, in the latest high-profile kidnapping in the country’s civil war.
Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said the assailants snatched the seven aid workers near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province around 11:30 a.m. local time 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 workers. The news agency blamed “terrorists,” a term the government uses to refer to those opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Schorno said the team of seven had been in the field since Thursday to assess the medical situation in the area and to look at how to provide medical aid. He said that the part of northern Syria where they were seized “is a difficult area to go in” and that the team was traveling with armed guards.
Much of the countryside in Idlib province, like the rest of northern Syria, has fallen over the past year into the hands of rebels, many of them Islamist extremists. Kidnappings, particularly of aid workers and foreign journalists, have become common.
Reporters Without Borders, an advocate for press freedom, calls Syria the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with 25 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 war began. Some were targeted, while others were killed in crossfire, the group said.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million to flee the country and caused untold suffering — psychological, emotional and physical — across the nation.
Near Damascus, hundreds of civilians, some carried on stretchers, fled the besieged rebel-held suburb of Moadamiya on Saturday and Sunday during a temporary cease-fire in the area, activists and officials said.
It was not clear who brokered the halt in fighting between rebels and government forces, but the truce was a rare case of coordination between the opposing sides.
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 Abdulrahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who uses a pseudonym.
Neither Syrian officials nor activists close to rebels would discuss the coordination.
Syria’s state news agency said Saturday that 2,000 women and children left Moadamiya for temporary housing in the nearby suburb of Qudsaya. An official with the Syrian Red Crescent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media, said 1,000 more people were evacuated Sunday. Those figures could not be independently verified.
For the thousands trapped in Moadamiya, on the western edge of Damascus, the humanitarian situation has been deteriorating for months. In a bid to squeeze rebels there, Syrian forces have blocked food and supplies from entering the district.
In Damascus itself, a double car bombing targeted the state TV building in central Umayyad Square, the official news agency said. The blast caused minor damage to the building. State TV said several pedestrians were wounded, but there was no further word on casualties.