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Songs, dancing, then a bomb: How Turkey may have committed a war crime against a protest convoy in Syria

Songs, dancing, then a bomb: How Turkey may have committed a war crime against a protest convoy in Syria

They left the northern Syrian city of Qamishli in a convoy of buses, motorbikes and cars. Men and women, young and old. They sang songs and flashed peace signs as they passed slowly through towns and villages along the way. 

The convoy of Kurdish protesters was heading to Ras al-Ayn, a border town that had seen days of heavy fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces. 

They planned to show their opposition to Turkey’s military operation with a symbolic demonstration and leave. But many of them never made it back. 

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At around 4pm on Sunday, shortly after they arrived in the city, what is believed to be a Turkish airstrike or artillery hit a large group of people as they stood outside their vehicle at the front of the convoy. Twelve people were killed in the blast, most of them civilians. Among them were two journalists who were there to cover the protest. A further 70 people were injured. 

The incident, coming just days into Turkey’s highly controversial incursion into northern Syria, may be the first recorded war crime by the Nato power since the start of the offensive. 

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As new video evidence has emerged in the last few days, Amnesty International said its own investigation found that the attack constituted a war crime.  

“The convoy attack is one of the most horrific incidents that’s taken place in the past few days. Amnesty verified the imagery and corroborated with witness testimony – and concluded that this attack clearly violated international humanitarian law,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East research director.  

“There is nothing safe about this zone that Turkey claims it wants to create – so far, its actions and those of its allies on the ground just demonstrate their utter disregard for civilian lives.”

The Independent understands the United Nations is also investigating the incident to determine if it constituted a war crime.

The war has already killed around 80 civilians in Syria and injured more than 400. Over 300,000 people have been displaced by the fighting so far. Turkish authorities said at least 18 civilians have been killed in Turkey by mortar fire from Kurdish forces. 

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The international community has widely condemned the offensive, which was sparked when President Donald Trump withdrew US troops from the Syria-Turkey border and gave Ankara a green light to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Video shows moments before Turkish airstrike on civilian convoy

The details of what happened on Sunday have emerged slowly. The good spirits of the protesters belied the obvious danger they were in as they made their way to Ras al-Ayn. They were heading towards an active war zone, to a city that was being pummelled by airstrikes and artillery. The presence of a small number of armed men in the convoy made the journey even more perilous. 

And yet, international investigators have told The Independent they believe it would have been unlikely for Turkey – a country with an advanced drone programme, and with the sophisticated surveillance that provides – to mistake the convoy for a military target. Videos of previous strikes released by the Turkish military show the clarity of view provided by its aircraft. 

The Turkish military would have seen the convoy make its way slowly along the road for more than 80 miles, stopping along the way. In the town of Tell Tamr more people joined. It was large and visible. They would have seen a large number of women in the group. 

“You might have thought they were going to a wedding, not a war,” said Lindsey Hilsum, a journalist for Channel 4 News, in her dispatch from along the convoy’s route, shortly before it was hit.  

One protester was asked whether she was afraid. She replied: “We’re not scared of fighting. Erdogan has been threatening us for 8 years, but we’re not afraid.”

When they reached the city of Ras al-Ayn, perhaps more than 100 people had joined in dozens of minibuses. They stopped in a street lined with shuttered shops, where they stepped out. 

They had purposefully chosen a point in the centre of the city to hold their protest, away from the fighting to the west and the east. 

One video shows the group dancing and singing, somewhat nervously. Another video shows what appears to be the same group gathering. There is a loud bang and a bright flash, followed by darkness. Another video posted online shows the gruesome aftermath of the strike. Bodies lie scattered on the floor while survivors sit up dazed and burned.

A witness later said they did not hear jets in the sky prior to the bombing, which suggests that the explosion could have been caused by artillery or a drone attack, rather than an airstrike. Investigations are now underway to discover the type of munition used.  

Images posted online show some of the dead appeared to be holding guns. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least nine people were killed, including five civilians. Kurdish authorities put the number at 12 killed and 74 injured, but did not say how many were civilians. 

(AFP/Getty)

An elderly mother of two named Dayika Akide was among the dead, according to local reports. Mohammed Hussein Rasho, a Syrian Kurdish reporter and cameraman for Cira TV, was injured in the blast and died of his wounds the following day, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Syrian Kurdish journalist Saad Ahmed, a reporter for the local news agency Hawar News, was also killed in the strike. 

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday that the strike the “worst incident we are aware of so far,” in the conflict. A UN team is now conducting an investigation into the strike. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East and North Africa representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgad, said: “Judging by the evidence we have, the footage and pictures we have seen and testimonies from eyewitnesses, it was clearly a civilian convoy on their way to Ras al-Ayn to protest the Turkish offensive.”

“International law expressly prohibits attacks on civilians and journalists. CPJ believes this airstrike could constitute a war crime and we call on Turkish authorities to immediately cease their attacks on journalists and civilians,” he added. 

Further investigations are now likely to focus on whether the attack meets the conditions to be a breach of international humanitarian law. That process can be extremely complicated. 

“There are certainly elements here that could lead you to conclude that they knew it was not a military objective,” William Schabas, Professor of International Law, Middlesex University in London, told The Independent.  

“There is a burden on the person who drops the bomb to take reasonable efforts to make sure they know the answer to the question about whether the target is military, and even if it is, whether there is an acceptable level of collateral damage to non-combatants.” 

“This case is complicated by the fact that there were armed people with the convoy. It’s not implausible Turkey would say it has a military dimension,” he said. 

Professor Schabas added that much of how the investigation proceeds will depend on how Turkey responds, or if they respond at all.  

“Let’s assume we don’t get a credible explanation from Turkey, we still have to reach conclusions of whether there was a war crime,” he said. The fact that the convoy was visible for dozens of miles, and that Turkey would have monitored its progress “is relevant to whether this was a military objective at all.” 

The Turkish foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

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