BEIRUT -- Gunmen waylaid a humanitarian convoy in northern Syria on Sunday and abducted seven people working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the aid group said.
It was the latest in a series of kidnappings of both foreign nationals and Syrians along roads in largely lawless stretches of northern Syria, much of which is under control of anti-government insurgents. Some armed groups are reportedly using ransoms from kidnappings to help finance their activities.
Sunday’s attack underscored the dangers to aid workers and others inside Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war.
Among those kidnapped in northern Syria in recent months have been a number of foreign journalists and two Christian bishops: Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim. The fate of the two bishops, who were seized near Aleppo in April, remains publicly unknown.
The seven aid workers abducted Sunday included six staffers of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a volunteer from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The nationalities of the six ICRC personnel were not made public.
The kidnappings occurred near the city of Sareqeb in Idlib province, where various anti-government armed factions control broad stretches of territory.
The official Syrian news agency reported that “an armed terrorist group’' — the government’s customary term for armed rebels — opened fire on the Red Cross convoy. It was not clear whether anyone was injured in the attack.
The aid team had traveled to Idlib province Thursday “to assess the medical situation in several ... health structures and to deliver medical supplies” to the cities of Sarmin and Idlib, the ICRC said in a statement. Such a trip would appear to require crossing of government and rebel lines, usually designated by checkpoints.
The attack occurred as the convoy was on its way back to Damascus, the capital, the ICRC said. The vehicles were clearly marked with the ICRC emblem, a red cross, “which is not a religious symbol,” the ICRC said.
Magne Barth, who heads he ICRC contingent in Syria, issued a statement calling for “the immediate and unconditional release of the seven colleagues abducted this morning.”
Both the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, he said, “work tirelessly to provide impartial humanitarian assistance for those most in need across Syria on both sides of the front lines, and incidents such as these potentially undermine our capacity to assist those who need us most.”
The more than two-year Syrian civil war has created a humanitarian catastrophe. More than one-quarter of Syria’s pre-war population of about 24 million has been forced from their homes, according to United Nations estimates. More than two million Syrians have fled the country. Heavy fighting and bombardment has reduced some entire towns and neighborhoods to rubble. Many hospitals and schools have been destroyed.
Among its many missions, the ICRC in Syria distributes food and other essentials, helps restore water supplies, supports medical services and tries to put family members separated by the war back in touch with each other. The ICRC works in both government-controlled and rebel zones, and also assists refugees who have fled to neighboring nations. The work is often dangerous. More than 20 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict began, the Red Cross said in August.
Because of the danger, some humanitarian agencies have left Syria and others have cut back on their staffing in the war-ravaged nation. Still, the Red Cross on Sunday vowed to remain on the ground in Syria.
“The ICRC is committed to assist the Syrian people,” the ICRC delegation chief in Syria said, “ and will continue conducting its humanitarian activities both in the country and in neighboring countries.”