Seasons greetings to our readers! Our festivities are on temporary hold as we look at the Halfaya bakery massacre.
The main elements of the Halfaya bakery massacre reported by news agency Reuters, CNN, Al Arabiya and other media channels, are that Syrian MIG jets bombed a bakery in Halfaya killing more than a hundred (CNN) and at least 300 (Al Arabiya) people.
On 23 December, the prime mover of the Halfaya massacre story at CNN was Saudi-born Mohammed Jamjoom who has recently moved to the CNN Beirut bureau:
The evidence for the story are witness statements and video footage provided by ‘activists’ (and in the case of CNN the, probably inadvertent, use of imagery from a terrorist car bombing in Baghdad which happened on the same day).
The story of the Halfaya massacre on the CNN website relies on the account of activist, eye-witness and amateur cameraman, Hassan Al Rajb. As CNN report:
“From 200 metres away I could see corpses as I walked towards the bakery. Bodies piled on top of one another, There are no words to describe it.”
Al-Rajb said the town has three bakeries, and one opened at 1 p.m. Workers began to distribute the bread two hours later. He was on his roof about 200 meters (about 219 yards) from the bakery about 4 p.m. and saw a plane overhead. He scrambled toward the scene when he heard cries of “Emergency! Emergency!” he said.
“The first floor collapsed on the second floor, and four rockets were fired into it,” he said of the attack.
Al Rajb who says he was one of the first on the scene filmed this video.
CNN are showing a cut down version of Al Rajb’s footage. However, the full footage shot by Al Rajb is on YouTube.
If you look at 1:03 on the CNN video and at 0:34 on the video below (CAUTION GRAPHIC CONTENT) you can see that this is the same footage. CNN have edited out the first 32 seconds which show the cameraman Al Rajb’s contention that he walked to the bakery from his home is undermined by the fact the cameraman arrives on the back of a pickup truck with other people shouting Allahu Akbar:
The bombing and coverage of Halfaya coincides with the visit of Lakhdar Brahimi to the Syrian capital on a peace mission. The story has, of course, been reported worldwide and official statements have been made by the French and UK governments, but the official story seems, in part at least, to be based on flawed evidence.
Halfaya is a town in Hama which recently fell after a long battle to a combination of rebel battalions including the al-Farouq Brigades, the Brigade of the Martyr Muhammad Mahdi al-Siyyadi, the Brigade of Ibn al-Khattab and Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front which has recently been declared a terrorist organisation by the US State Department).
The footage uploaded to YouTube shows the results of an explosion outside a two-story building. There are at least five cameramen on the site who are recording the action. The number of bodies shown in the footage at the scene is around a dozen, mainly gathered around the rear of a pick-up truck parked just outside the building. An attempt is made to move this pick-up truck despite the dead and injured lying just behind it, but it looks as if the tyres have burst in the explosion:
From the footage it is clear a similar number of people are injured, some seriously and some walking wounded. The initial evidence that the building is a bakery rested on the statements of ‘activists’ and photographs of a bloodied loaf of bread. Some of the video footage, which evidence suggests may have been taken by a Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda) cameraman, actually shows someone throwing fresh bread onto a pool of blood on the road:
The balcony of the building in front of which the bodies lie has collapsed on people below, so that a large amount of rubble and concrete blocks have fallen over the victims. The pickup truck is parked right up against one of the doors of the building. A small crater is a few feet behind the pick-up truck and the explosion looks to have thrown earth and some of the victims inwards towards the building.
There are a number of explanations for the explosion – the most likely being a rocket. If this was an airstrike then, given the presence of large numbers of rebels in the area with cameras, it seems likely any plane will have been filmed.
Almost all of the bodies appear to be of men of fighting age, although there is a body in what may be woman’s clothing and at least two of the survivors are women, including one who is carried away from the scene and another who is helped away. Some of the casualties are wearing military attire. It takes about 8 minutes to clear the site of the bodies and the wounded and the widespread reports of a hundred or more casualties are not backed up by the video footage available.
Photos released onto Facebook (without EXIF data) show queues of people, segregated by sex, outside this same building on a rainy day, which lends support to the contention this was a bakery. However, photographs of the inside of the building have not yet been produced nor have photos of the scene (on a dry day) before the explosion happened. If this building is a bakery then it should be pointed out to the rebel brigades responsible that, if protecting civilians is the aim, flying what looks like the Jabat al Nusrah/Al Qaeda flag from its rooftop is not a good idea.
The use of the word “activist” in describing propagandists working for the various brigades is widespread and may give unwarranted credence to their propaganda. Any serious journalist should be well aware of the fact that these ‘activists’ using advanced communications equipment, provided by the US and UK, are producing rebel propaganda which needs to be very carefully examined as to its factual content.
Update 22/01/2013: Intrepid freelance war reporter Kurt Pelda managed to reach Halfaya and report from the scene. His report adds some interesting elements to the story
1) According to Pelda’s report the building is in fact the Halfaya town hall (‘rathaus’), albeit he says there was a bakery on the ground floor.
2) Pelda confirms the presence of black flags with the shahada on them on the roof and claims the rebels hold some responsibility for what happened by putting their military symbols on a civilian building.
3) The report shows damage to the roof of the town hall (damage which can be seen on footage at the scene) and a witness claims four rockets were fired from a plane ‘hitting in a line.’
4) A map showing the apparent hits does not support the contention the hits are in line.
5) A man described as a ‘Sanitäter’ (paramedic/medical orderly) claims there were 115 dead, 100 of whom were identified and 70 seriously wounded.
6) Pelda reports ‘about 100’ fresh graves in the town’s cemetary.
So who are these people and under what circumstances were they killed? Undoubtedly, some of them (almost all men) were killed outside the town hall. But the video evidence, the presence of the deeply sectarian, Jabhat al-Nusrah in Halfiya at this time, the record of the rebels with regard to civilians believed to belong to the Alawi sect and the presence on the scene of a rebel brigade leader who is on video aiming unguided rockets in the general direction of a nearby majority-Christian town all raise serious questions and demand further investigation.
It is, of course, be a crime to affix military insignia to a civilian building such as a bakery: as the Rules of War state:
Rule 24. Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove civilian persons and objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives.
Update 27/01 According to reports on Syrian TV, the rebels have left Halfaya due to the efforts of the SAA, and residents who fled have returned to their homes.
Text updated 03/01 and 27/01 due to information received