Gunmen abducted a team of seven workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross after stopping their convoy early Sunday in northern Syria, a spokesman said, in the latest high-profile kidnapping in the country's civil war.
Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC in Damascus, said the abduction took place near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province around 11:30 a.m. local time as the team was returning to Damascus with armed guards. Six of the kidnapped are ICRC staff workers and one is a volunteer from the Syrian Red Crescent, he said.
Schorno declined to provide the nationalities of the six ICRC employees, and said it was not clear who was behind the attack.
Syria's state news agency, quoting an anonymous official, said the gunmen opened fire on the ICRC team's four vehicles before seizing the Red Cross workers. The news agency blamed "terrorists," a term the government uses to refer to those opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Schorno said the team of seven had been in the field since Oct. 10 to assess the medical situation in the area and to look at how to provide medical aid. He said the part of northern Syria where they were seized "by definition is a difficult area to go in."
Much of the countryside in Idlib province, as well as the rest of northern Syria, has fallen over the past year into the hands of rebels, many of them Islamic extremists, and kidnappings have become rife, particularly of aid workers and foreign journalists.
'The most dangerous country in the world'
Press freedom advocate Reporters without Borders calls Syria "the most dangerous country in the world" for journalists, with 25 reporters killed and at least 33 imprisoned since the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011.
The conflict also has taken a toll on the aid community. The ICRC said in August that 22 Syrian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in the country since the conflict began. Some were deliberately targeted, while others killed in crossfire, the group said.
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Syria's bloody conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than two million Syrians to flee the country and caused untold suffering — psychological, emotional and physical — across the nation.
Outside Damascus, hundreds of civilians, some carried on stretchers, fled the besieged rebel-held suburb of Moadamiyeh on Saturday and Sunday following a temporary ceasefire in the area, activists and officials said.
It was not immediately clear who brokered the halt in fighting between rebels and government forces, but the temporary truce marked a rare case of coordination between the opposing sides in Syria's civil war.
"It's [been] an area of military operations for months, so to see this halt of fire, and to see this exodus of people, means there's a high level cooperation — not regular cooperation," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Neither Syrian officials nor activists close to rebels would discuss the coordination.
Syria's state news agency SANA said Saturday that 2,000 women and children left the suburb for temporary housing in the nearby suburb of Qudsaya.
An official with the Syrian Red Crescent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said another 1,000 people were evacuated Sunday. Those figures could not be independently verified.
For the thousands of people trapped in Moadamiyeh, the humanitarian situation has been deteriorating for months. In a bid to squeeze rebels there, Syrian forces blocked food and supplies from entering the district on the western edge of Damascus.
The suburb's residents have been hit hard. Activists from the Moadamiyeh Media Center reported six people died of starvation in September: two women and four children. One woman described how her 18-month-old daughter lost half her weight as she struggled to nourish her on boiled lentil water.
It's not clear how many people still live in the area. A Moadamiyeh Media Center activist who only identified himself as Mahmoud out of security concerns estimated some 12,000 people likely remain.
Also Sunday, Islamic extremists blew up a shrine of a mystic Muslim saint, Issa Abdul-Qader al-Rafai, in the northern town of Busaira, the Observatory said. A shrine belonging to the mystic's brother was destroyed in September.
Islamic extremists, who form some of the most powerful armed factions in the rebel ranks, also have burnt churches, smashed statues, and desecrated shrines belonging to Islam's minority Muslim sects, and those belonging to mystic Sufi branches of Islam.