RASHIDIN, SYRIA // Nearly 70 children were among those killed when a suicide car bombing tore through buses carrying evacuees from besieged government-held towns in Syria, a monitor said on Sunday.
The deadly blast on Saturday hit a convoy carrying residents from the northern towns of Foua and Kafraya as they waited at a transit point in rebel-held Rashidin, west of Aleppo.
At least 68 children were among the 126 people killed in the attack, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, raising the toll from 112 previously.
At least 109 of the dead were evacuees, the Britain-based monitoring group said, while the rest were aid workers and rebels guarding the convoy.
The evacuations were taking place under a deal between Syria’s regime and rebels that is also seeing residents and rebels transported out of Madaya and Zabadani, towns near Damascus which are surrounded by pro-government forces.
The agreement is the latest in a string of evacuation deals, which the government of president Bashar Al Assad says are the best way to end the violence after more than six years of civil war.
Rebels say they amount to forced relocations after years of bombardment and crippling sieges.
Body parts and the belongings of evacuees — including clothes, dishes and televisions — were still strewn at the scene of the attack on Sunday.
The shattered buses were nearby as was the shell of a pickup truck — with little left but its engine block — that was apparently used to carry out the bombing.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, though the key Ahrar Al Sham rebel group denied any involvement. The government blamed “terrorists” — a catch-all term for its opponents.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria to monitor the conflict, said hundreds of people were also wounded in the blast.
More than 3,000 Syrians are expected to be evacuated on Sunday from four areas as part of a population transfer that was briefly stalled by the deadly blast that killed scores, most of them government supporters.
The United Nations is not overseeing the transfer deal, which involves residents of the pro-government villages of Foua and Kafraya and the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. All four have been under siege for years, their fate linked through a series of reciprocal agreements that the UN says have hindered aid deliveries.
The Observatory and Hizbollah’s Al Manar TV said 3,000 people will be evacuated from Foua and Kafraya, while 200, the vast majority of them fighters, will be evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya.
Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, said the dead included 98 people from Foua and Kafraya.
The monitor said a petrol station at the transit point was caught up in the explosion, adding to the number of victims.
The Syrian Red Crescent said three of its workers were among the wounded.
Maysa Al Aswad, a 30-year-old evacuee from Kafraya, said she was sitting on one of the buses with her six-month-old son Hadi and 10-year-old daughter Narjis when the blast shook the parked convoy.
“Hadi was on my lap and Narjis on a chair next to me. When the explosion happened I hugged them both and we fell to the floor,” she said from near Aleppo.
“I didn’t know what was happening, all I could hear was people crying and shouting,” she said.
“All I can think about is how we survived all the death during the last few years and then could have died just after we finally escaped.”
UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien condemned the bombing, saying: “The perpetrators of such a monstrous and cowardly attack displayed a shameless disregard for human life.”
More than 5,000 people left Foua and Kafraya and about 2,200 left Madaya and Zabadani on Friday, the latest in a series of evacuations from the four towns under the agreement.
The evacuation process resumed after the bombing, the Observatory said, with the residents of Foua and Kafraya eventually arriving in Aleppo, Syria’s second city which the government gained full control of last year.
Wounded survivors, including many children, were taken for treatment at an Aleppo hospital.
The evacuation deal was brokered by Qatar, a longtime supporter of Syrian opposition forces, and Iran, a key regime ally.
Shiite-dominated Iran has repeatedly raised concerns for the residents of Foua and Kafraya, who are mainly Shiites and were besieged by Sunni rebels.
Syria’s war has left more than 320,000 people dead since erupting in 2011, with more than half the population forced from their homes and hundreds of thousands trapped under siege.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press