After years of petitioning for aid, on Tuesday, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy of 17 trucks left for the rebel-held south Hama countryside. When it got to the checkpoint of one of the towns, Aqrab, pro-regime militias reportedly shot on or near the convoy, and it turned around to go back to Hama city.
Shortly thereafter, pro-regime media outlets reported that residents from the adjacent pro-regime towns in south Hama fired shots in the air to protest what they allege to be the mass kidnapping of 300 residents from Alawite-majority areas.
With food baskets and medicine, the convoy, the first to arrive at the rebel-held countryside since 2013, was destined for the rebel-held towns of Aqrab, Tallaf, and Khirbet al-Jama, which were encircled by regime forces in 2012. An estimated 25,000 residents live in the pocket, roughly 40 km southwest of Hama city.
“The militias prevented the convoy’s entry and began to fire on the aid trucks,” Hassan al-Amri, a local council member in Aqrab, told Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar on Thursday.
Residents were outraged as they watched the convoy turn around at the checkpoint, al-Amri said. “They’ve been waiting for years, deprived of basic supplies.”
Syria Direct contacted SARC on Thursday for comment; the SARC employee we reached said he did not know anything about Wednesday’s convoy in south Hama province.
Q: Could you describe from your perspective what happened on Wednesday? How did you learn that the aid convoy had been targeted and then turned back?
We’ve been in contact with the United Nations, the Red Crescent and the Red Cross for more than three years to initiate a humanitarian aid delivery [the first since 2013] to the besieged towns of the south Hama countryside.
The UN, in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, accepted our request and agreed to send 17 trucks with food baskets, some medications, and basic water filtration supplies to the besieged towns.
However, the National Defense Forces from pro-regime villages, the same groups partaking in the siege, stopped the convoy at their checkpoint.
The militias prevented the convoy’s entry and began to fire on the aid trucks. A group of residents from the pro-regime towns gathered and blocked the road so the convoy would go back to Hama city.
We received information about the gunfire at the checkpoint from residents in rebel-held Aqrab who have been monitoring the movement of regime forces.
Q: Why do you believe shots were fired at the SARC convoys, even after they received regime authorization to enter? Have you contacted the Red Crescent to found out why the convoys turned back?
After we got word that the convoy had turned back, we reached out to the Red Crescent. They told us that the convoy had returned to Hama city because the trucks and cargo were damaged. However, they did not mention the cause.
The local council has been in contact with the relevant relief organizations to set a new date for the entry of aid convoys. They’ve informed us that another convoy will arive soon, but nothing more specific.
Q: How many requests have you sent to the United Nations and relief organizations for the delivery of humanitarian aid to south Hama countryside?
We’ve sent many requests to the United Nations, the Red Cross, and the Red Crescent, considering that these three towns have been encircled sinced February 2012.
The last aid convoy entered in May 2012. At that time, there were only two trucks that went to the town of Aqrab.
Regarding the convoy that was supposed to arrive on Tuesday, the Red Crescent first scheduled the delivery in March. It was postponed until May because they could not obtain security clearance from the regime for entry. It was only until recentely that access was authorized for Tallaf, Aqrab, and Khirbet al-Jama, but the aid didn’t enter as I’ve mentioned.
Q: How did Aqrab residents react to the blocked humanitarian convoy?
When the convoys turned around at the border of the town, there was a public outcry in the besieged towns. They’ve been waiting for years, deprived of basic supplies, while the adjacent pro-regime towns have received aid.
This aid was meant for Aqrab and Tallaf, countryside towns that the regime has encircled.
Q: Pro-regime media outlets such as World & Syria News claim that Wednesday’s aid delivery was blocked by local pro-regime militias to protest the kidnapping of 300 residents from loyalist towns. How do you respond to this allegation?
Loyalist forces have made kidnapping allegations since 2012.
The local council denies the presence of any kidnapped Alawite residents and insist that the rebels are not responsible for the Aqrab Massacre of 2012.