Monday, 14 October 2013

Red Cross Syria kidnap underscores risks in war zones

The kidnapping in Syria of seven aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent on Sunday underscores the stark daily risks faced by those helping victims of the conflict.

"Six ICRC staff members and one member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been abducted in Idlib in northwestern Syria," ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told AFP at the organisation's Geneva base.

"We don't know who took them. It was unidentified armed men," he added, when pressed on whether the kidnappers were thought to be from Syria's rebel side or militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"We're calling for their immediate, unconditional and safe release," he said.

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

Earlier Sunday, Syrian state television reported that "armed terrorist gangs" attacked the ICRC convoy and kidnapped its members.

Large parts of Idlib province are under the control of rebel groups, including jihadists, who are fighting to oust Assad's regime.

The conflict has killed more than 115,000 people in two and a half years, driven more than two million out of Syria and left millions more inside the country reliant on aid to survive.

The Swiss-based ICRC strives not to be drawn into the politics of conflict zones where its staff serve.

"That's the whole point about being neutral and impartial. It ensures us access," said Watson.

Aid is a sharply political issue in Syria, where United Nations investigators have accused both sides of a range of war crimes, including targeting ambulances, and blamed government forces for denying medical care to opposition-held areas.

The ICRC has some 30 expatriates and 120 Syrian aid workers deployed in the country.

Like UN agencies, it works hand in hand with volunteers from the local Red Crescent, one of the few aid bodies able to operate nationwide.

Twenty-two Syrian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the war began in March 2011.

The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, and perhaps best known for visiting prisoners of war.

But much of its work revolves around helping civilians swept up in conflicts, with its staff all too aware of the risks they face.

"Difficult security conditions are very much part of life at the ICRC. There's no such thing as easy access to a conflict zone. By definition they are dangerous," said Watson.

'Isn't going to stop us'

The seven aid workers were abducted near the community of Sareqeb after setting off back to the Syrian capital Damascus.

Watson said he could not confirm their names and nationalities, in part to be sure their families were informed first.

They had travelled northwest on Thursday to deliver supplies to hospitals in Idlib city and neighbouring Sarmin, and to carry out an assessment of health needs in the area.

The convoy was clearly marked with the ICRC emblem, which although it includes a cross is not meant as a religious symbol -- it is a reverse-colour version of neutral Switzerland's flag, chosen by its 19th century founding fathers.

Security is a constant concern for aid workers, notably in wars such as Syria's where front lines can be fluid and convoys have to criss-cross checkpoints manned by different groups within each camp.

"It's a continual, evolving negotiation, in a sense, to ensure that we can get to where we need to be. We're dealing with different security incidents all the time, of all shapes and sizes," said Watson.

Despite the kidnapping, ICRC staff were continuing operations Sunday, notably by helping 3,500 civilians allowed by government forces to leave the besieged town of Moaddamiyah near Damascus.

"We are committed to helping the Syrian people, and that's not going to go away because of this incident. Incidents like this do make us take stock. But the fact that's dangerous isn't going to stop us," said Watson.

Monday 14 October 2013


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