x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Red Cross says seven missing aid workers in Syria kidnapped

Unidentified armed men take six Red Cross aid workers and a member of the Syrian Red Crescent.

GENEVA // The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that six of its aid workers and a member of the Syrian Red Crescent had been kidnapped in Syria.

The agency had no contact with the kidnappers but was appealing for the seven to be freed immediately, ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson said, declining to reveal the nationalities or gender of the six ICRC staff.

“Six ICRC staff members and one member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been abducted in Idlib in northwestern Syria,” Mr Watson said.

“We don’t know who took them. It was unidentified armed men,” he said, when asked whether the kidnappers were thought to be from Syria’s rebel side or militias loyal to the regime Bashar Al Assad.

Syrian state television reported that “armed terrorist gangs” attacked the ICRC convoy and kidnapped its members.

The humanitarian organisation, which specialises in helping victims of war, strives not to be drawn into the politics of conflict zones where its staff serve.

ICRC and Red Crescent staff in Idlib and Aleppo were scrambling to locate and secure the release of the kidnapped aid workers.

“We work on both sides of the front lines, trying to deliver aid. This type of incident unfortunately can undermine our capacity to reach those in need,” said Mr Watson.

He said the aid workers were abducted after setting off back to Damascus, having been in Idlib province to deliver health supplies to hospitals in two cities and to carry out an assessment of health needs in the area.

Large parts of the province are under the control of rebel groups, including hardline Sunni militants, who are fighting to oust Al Assad’s regime. The conflict has killed more than 115,000 people in two and a half years.

Meanwhile in eastern Syria, Al Qaeda-aligned rebels were blamed for blowing up a Sufi shrine.

Militants placed explosives at the shrine of Sheikh Eissa Abdelqader Al Rifaiy in the rebel-held town of Busaira, 45km east of the provincial capital of Deir Al Zor, and detonated them on Sunday morning, opposition activists said.

They said fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant were behind the explosion.

“The Islamic State has a base outside the town. The ease by which they got to the shrine indicates that their presence is growing,” Abu Al Tayyeb Al Deiri said.

Video footage and a photo released by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group showed the shrine reduced to a field of shattered rock and twisted metal with trees and a small domed building in the background.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters