BEIRUT (AP) — The United States on Tuesday blamed Russia for an overnight attack on an aid convoy that killed 20 civilians as the U.N. announced it was suspending overland aid deliveries in Syria, jeopardizing food and medical security for millions of besieged and hard-to-reach civilians.
Confusion continued about who struck the convoy, but the White House insisted it was either Russia or Syria. White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said either way, the U.S. held Russia responsible, because it was Russia's job under the week-old cease-fire to prevent Syria's air force from striking in areas where humanitarian aid was being transported.
"All of our information indicates clearly that this was an airstrike," Rhodes said, rejecting the claim by Russia's Defense Ministry that a cargo fire caused the damage. Both Russia and Syria have denied carrying out the bombing.
Within one minute of the strike, the U.S. tracked a Russian-made Su-24 directly over the region of the attack, U.S. officials said. Even that revelation failed to definitively implicate Russia because both the Russian and Syrian air forces fly the Su-24, although the U.S. officials said there were strong indications that the jet was flown by the Russian military.
The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the incident.
Witnesses described the Monday attack on a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse and convoy in the rebel-held town of Uram al-Kubra in Aleppo province as prolonged and intense, saying the aerial bombardment continued as rescue workers rushed to pull the wounded from the flaming wreckage and rubble.
The convoy was part of a routine interagency dispatch operated by the Syrian Red Crescent, which U.N. officials said was delivering assistance to 78,000 people in Uram al-Kubra, west of Aleppo city. It was carrying food, medicines, emergency health kits, IV fluids, and other essentials supplied by the U.N. and the World Health Organization.
Local paramedic and media activist Mohammad Rasoul, who was among the first to arrive at the scene, said over 100 tons of food, medicine, and baby formula had gone up in flames. He said 18 of the convoy's 31 trucks were completely destroyed.
The attack "erased the convoy from the face of the earth," Rasoul said.
"I've never seen anything like this attack," he said. "If this had been a military position, it wouldn't have been targeted with such intensity."
He said the attack began around 20 minutes after sunset on Monday and continued for two hours.
Pointing to the fact that Syria's rebels don't possess an air force, the White House said process of elimination indicated that either Syria's military or Russia's launched the attack. Both Syrian and Russian aircraft operate over the province, while the U.S.-led coalition targets the Islamic State group in other parts of the country.
At the same time the attack took place on Uram al-Kubra, presumed Syrian or Russian jets launched a wave of attacks in and around the nearby city of Aleppo, minutes after Syria's military announced a weeklong cease-fire had expired.
A cargo fire would not explain the footage filmed by rescuers of torn flesh being picked from the wreckage, or the witness accounts of a sustained, two-hour barrage of missiles, rockets, and barrel bombs — crude, unguided weapons that the Syrian government drops from helicopters.
Hussein Badawi, the head of the town's Syrian Civil Defense search and rescue group — also known as the White Helmets — said that on the night of the attack he heard the sounds of overhead ballistic missiles, helicopters and fighter jets. He and other witnesses reported seeing a reconnaissance aircraft observing the convoy before the attack.
"There were reconnaissance flights before the airstrikes," said Badawi. "They filmed and combed the area, and they knew there was a Red Crescent (facility). The target was the Red Crescent, central and direct."
Russia's Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that a drone had followed the convoy from a warehouse in the government-side of Aleppo to its destination in Uram al-Kubra.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that 20 civilians were killed in the attack, many of them killed as they were unloading the trucks. Syrian activists and paramedics had said earlier that the airstrikes killed 12.
Witnesses said some of the remains were charred beyond recognition.
Among those killed was Omar Barakat, 38, the local director for the Red Crescent and a father of nine. His brother, Ali Barakat, who was also present at the attack, said it took him three hours to reach Omar, who was trapped in his vehicle.
"I stayed with my face on the floor for about an hour because of the intensity of the strikes," said Barakat.
Omar Barakat died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.
The U.N. stressed that they had "deconflicted" the delivery with all parties before the operation, by obtaining the necessary permits from the government and supplying combatants with the relevant coordinates for the move.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a "sickening, savage and apparently deliberate attack," in his address to world leaders at the General Assembly Tuesday. "Just when we think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower," he said, describing the bombers as "cowards" and those delivering aid as "heroes."
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency, OCHA, announced earlier in the day it had suspended relief convoys in Syria, pending a review of the security situation. OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke called it "a very, very dark day... for humanitarians across the world."
But the U.N. appeared to carry on with air drops to government-held areas.
World Food Programme spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said in a statement that the U.N. food agency had airdropped aid to the besieged eastern city of Deir el-Zour earlier Tuesday "as part of the planned schedule of deliveries."
Reached for clarification, OCHA's Damascus office said only interagency convoys had been suspended, without elaborating further.
A member of the Syrian Civil Defense criticized the U.N. humanitarian aid agency for suspending the convoys.
Ibrahim Alhaj told The Associated Press that Syrian civilians will pay the price for the decision — and that the U.N. should have condemned the attacks on the convoy rather than suspending aid.
The U.N. says over 6 million Syrians are living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas and require humanitarian aid.
Media activist Wassim al-Ahmad sent a text message to The Associated Press from the besieged town of Madaya, outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, saying residents were asking whether the reports were true that the U.N. was suspending its aid convoys. The town, the scene of some of the most distressing images of starvation to emerge from Syria last winter, was expecting its first delivery since June.
"So, in the end, the burden falls on the besieged," lamented al-Ahmad.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in New York, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.