On Saturday, April 15, a suicide bombing killed 126 people, including at least 68 children. AT least 109 of those deaths were evacuees from pro-regime villages, while other deaths were of aid workers assisting with the evacuation process. The attack also resulted in an additional 55 injuries, according to Syrian Civil Defense.
The convoy of buses was carrying thousands of people from besieged Syrian towns toward government-held parts of Aleppo. The buses were stopped at Rashidin, west of Aleppo, at a checkpoint for exchange. They were hit by a vehicle full of explosives at 3:30 local time. The vehicle, filled with children’s food supplies, had been distributing chips to children before it exploded, resulting in the high number of children killed and injured in the attack. The rebel group Ahrar al-Sham tweeted that some of its members were also killed in the bombing. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. Ahrar al-Sham has stated that it will be investigating the attack.
The evacuees were being moved from Foah and Kefraya, according to BBC News. These are majority Shia Muslim towns held by the Syrian government forces, but have been encircled by rebel and Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni forces since March 2015. BBC’s correspondent Lina Sinjab has said that it is “not clear how the vehicle could have reached the area without government permission.” The government claims that the bombing is a rebel attack, but the BBC reports that there is insufficient evidence for such a charge. CNN cites Rami Abdul Rahman, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who claims that he “doesn’t believe the Syrian regime is behind the attack. He said the regime kills scores of people daily using all types of weaponry and doesn’t need to kill its own sympathizers.”
The evacuation was a part of the Four Towns agreement, a deal brokered by Iran and Qatar, in which thousands of civilians from both sides of the civil war would be allowed to leave besieged towns for safer locations. It encompassed Foah and Kefraya on the side of the Syrian government, and Madaya and Zabadani in rebel-held territories near Damascus. The bombing in Rashidin caused fear of retaliatory attacks on evacuees from rebel towns, but no such attacks have occurred. The civilian convoys resumed their progress later that day, and continued on Sunday.
According to BBC News, a previous attempt at mutual evacuations failed in December 2016 when rebel forces burnt the buses that were going to be used to facilitate the evacuations.
In his address for Easter Sunday, Pope Francis made a statement about the attack. He called the bombing “a vile attack on fleeing refugees,” and prayed that God “may sustain the efforts of those who are actively working to bring comfort and relief to the civilian population in beloved Syria, who are greatly suffering from a war that does not cease to sow horror and death.”
The spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General said, “We call on the parties to ensure the safety and security of those waiting to be evacuated. Those responsible for today’s attack must be brought to justice.” The UN has been accused of neglect for not involving itself in the Four Towns evacuation process. The Syrian American Medical Society released a statement saying that “this forced displacement is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and marks yet another sad chapter in the history of this crisis. The absence of the UN and the international community from this process has left the civilian populations especially vulnerable, leading to horrific events such as what took place today. The UN must not abandon its role in protecting innocent civilians and enforcing international humanitarian law.”