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(New York) – A merciless attack on a Red Crescent ambulance is the latest evidence of grave danger to humanitarian workers in the embattled Syrian city of Homs, Human Rights Watch said today.

The September 7, 2011 attack on the ambulance by unknown assailants injured three rescuers and the wounded patient it was transporting. The attack highlights the need for an on-the-ground, independent investigation into human rights violations in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

“If Red Crescent volunteers are not safe from harm, who is?” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Attacks on humanitarian workers are unacceptable in any context, and the United Nations commission should make investigation of this incident a priority.”

The day after the attack, September 8, security forces at a checkpoint in the Khalidiyya neighborhood of Homs stopped a Red Crescent vehicle on its way to drop off a staff member at his home and then insulted and beat the driver, accusing him and the Red Crescent of “rescuing protesters and gang members.” The incident has been documented in a complaint submitted to the Red Crescent by one of its staff members.

The Syrian government has not commented on the September 7 or 8 attacks on Red Crescent staff and the ambulance.

The Commission of Inquiry established by the United Nations Human Rights Council on August 23, and whose members were named on September 12, should ensure that attacks and harassment of medical rescuers are one of the priorities of their work, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch reviewed an internal incident report of the September 7 attack prepared by Red Crescent volunteers who were in the ambulance.

Researchers for Human Rights Watch also interviewed one of the volunteers and reviewed photosof the ambulance following the attack. According to the report and the volunteer, the ambulance was hit with 31 bullets from four sides. A Red Crescent volunteer who was in the ambulance told Human Rights Watch that there was no fighting going on around their vehicle when they came under fire.

According to the incident report prepared by the Red Crescent volunteers, a Red Crescent ambulance with license plate 269837 set out to the Warshe neighborhood of Homs at 10:15 p.m. after receiving an emergency call. The vehicle carried four Red Crescent rescuers and a driver. A security checkpoint at the entrance of the neighborhood allowed them to proceed to treat the wounded. After picking up a man injured with two bullet wounds and while driving him to the hospital, the ambulance came under heavy fire from four sides: rear, left, right, and above.

Three of the Red Crescent rescuers were gravely wounded by the bullets: Hakam Dara’ al-Seba`i, Muhammad Hakam Mubarak, and Abdel Hameed al-Fajr. The injured patient in the ambulance was also hit by additional bullets. The driver escaped injury and managed to drive the ambulance to the Barr Hospital.

According to one of the rescuers, their ambulance had its distinctive blue and red warning lights on and was clearly marked and visible.

“We were the only vehicle on the street, and there were no street lights. So you could not miss us,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Fire came from all sides. I did not see those shooting at us, as I ducked my head. Much of the fire came from above. It must have been the security forces posted on rooftops. Why would the antigovernment folks open fire on us while we were transporting a wounded man from their own neighborhood?”

Photos of the vehicle, taken by Red Crescent volunteers the day after the incident, show that it was clearly marked as a Red Crescent vehicle and appear to confirm the large number of hits on the vehicle.

This is not the first attack on rescuers or Red Crescent vehicles since the beginning of antigovernment protests in Syria. Residents from the southern governorate of Daraa told Human Rights Watch that security forces had opened fire on several occasionson medical personnel trying to reach the injured during the crackdown in March and April. In one instance in March, an ambulance came under fire and a doctor and a nurse were killed. The authorities later blamed the attack on “armed gangs.”

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