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UN suspends Syria aid convoys after deadly air strikes

Omar Haj Kadour, AFP | A truck belonging to a convoy of United Nations and Arab Red Crescent vehicles that was hit by air strikes near Aleppo on September 19, 2016.

The UN said Tuesday it had suspended all humanitarian aid convoys in Syria after a deadly air raid hit trucks delivering aid near Aleppo, killing several civilians including a senior employee of the Syrian Red Crescent.

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As an "immediate security measure, other convoy movements in Syria have been suspended," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency told reporters in Geneva.

This marks a "very, very dark day for humanitarians in Syria and indeed across the world," he said, stressing that it was "paramount that we are able to establish the facts through an independent investigation."

The UN said at least 18 trucks in the 31-vehicle convoy were destroyed late Monday en route to deliver humanitarian assistance to the hard-to-reach town of Orum al-Kubra, west of Aleppo.

Around 20 civilians were killed in the strike, along with the director of the Syrian Red Crescent's sub-branch, according to the Red Cross. The Red Crescent (which is part of the Red Cross humanitarian network) said it would also suspend its operations in the Aleppo region for three days in protest at the attack.

Laerke said the convoy had been carrying food and non-food aid for some 78,000 people.

The aid was "intended for people in dire need... This aid will now not reach those people," he said, stressing that attacks on humanitarian workers has "an exponential effect on thousands of other people."

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien called the attacks "sickening" and said he was "disgusted and horrified". He underscored that all groups operating in the region had received notification of the convoy.

There is no excuse "for waging war on brave and selfless humanitarian workers", O’Brien said, warning that if they were deliberately targeted "it would amount to a war crime".

'Assad's regime is chiefly responsible'

US State Department spokesman John Kirby called the UN convoy attack an "egregious violation" of a week-long ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow, and said the US "will reassess the future prospects for cooperation with Russia."

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said the deadly airstrikes were "chiefly the responsibility of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad's regime. He told FRANCE 24, "Aleppo and its residents are under threat, humanitarian aid can’t get there, and the bombings continue."

Ceasefire unravelling

Russia's defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that neither its forces nor the Syrian military were responsible for the air strike on the UN aid convoy.

Earlier Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned against making "any unsubstantiated conclusions".

The incident came hours after the Syrian military declared an end to a week-long truce brokered by Moscow and Washington earlier this month in an attempt to end the five-year war.

Peskov said that hope for a renewal of the ceasefire was "for now, very weak", stressing that a truce could only be resumed if "terrorists" halted their alleged bombardments of government forces.

"The conditions are very simple. The shooting needs to stop and the terrorists need to stop attacking Syrian troops," he said.

"And, of course, it wouldn't hurt if our American colleagues didn't accidentally bomb the Syrians," he added, referring to a US-led coalition strike last week that Moscow said had killed at least 62 Syrian servicemen.

'Hard to see how the ceasefire can be rectified'

Russia and the United States have persistently blamed each other for not doing enough to fulfill the ceasefire deal they sponsored.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to discuss the unravelling truce with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on Tuesday, where world leaders are gathered for the UN General Assembly.

The two top diplomats had negotiated the deal earlier this month, hoping to put an end to more than five years of conflict in which over 300,000 people have been killed.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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