Aleppo evacuation agreement back on as guns fall silent



A new agreement has been reached for the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from the last pocket of territory they control in Aleppo, Syrian regime and rebel sources said Thursday, a day after a previous agreement fell through.

A senior Syrian military source told AFP: “A deal has been reached for rebels to leave, and the preparations are happening now.”

Russia’s defence ministry, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it was preparing the evacuation of the remaining rebels with Syrian authorities.

“On the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian ceasefire monitoring centre, in cooperation with Syrian authorities, is preparing the evacuation of the remaining rebels and members of their families from the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo,” a ministry statement said.

The rebels would be evacuated toward the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib in 20 buses and 10 ambulances, it said.

A REUTERS reporter in the besieged city said guns had fallen silent in the early hours of the morning amid preparations for the evacuation.

Rebels earlier said a first convoy of civilians, many of them injured, would leave on Thursday morning, and after several hours of delay it appeared preparations were underway.

“The first batch of wounded civilians, their relatives and some other civilian families is being prepared,” said Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a unit of doctors and other volunteers that are coordinating the evacuation of wounded people.

“The gathering point for civilians and wounded in Aleppo city is in Al-Amiriyah, and people are starting to board the buses now,” Dbis said, speaking to AFP from a rebel-held area in the west of Aleppo province.

The announcements follow hours of confusion after an earlier agreement, brokered by Russia and Turkey, had collapsed.

Under the initial plan, thousands of civilians and rebel fighters were due to evacuate early Wednesday the east of Syria’s second city, scene of some of the worst violence in more than five years of war across the country.

But cold and hungry civilians who had gathered before dawn to evacuate were instead plunged back into a familiar nightmare.

Telephone diplomacy

As booms from air strikes and artillery fire rang out earlier Wednesday, AFP’s correspondent in rebel areas of Aleppo saw panicked civilians running for cover.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported “very intense clashes on every front line” and said at least two people had been killed in rebel areas.

State television said rebel rocket fire on government-controlled areas had killed at least seven people.

Former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front said Wednesday that one of its suicide bombers detonated a car bomb at a regime position in southern Aleppo.

Moscow blamed rebels for violating the ceasefire, saying it expected opposition resistance in Aleppo to end in the next “two to three days”.

A source close to the government said Damascus objected to the number of people leaving, claiming rebels had sought to raise it from 2,000 to 10,000.

But Youssef from the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group said the regime and Iran sought to link the Aleppo deal to the fate of Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shiite-majority villages in northwest Syria under rebel siege.

It was unclear whether the new agreement included a condition that wounded people would also be evacuated from there.

The rebels and Ankara have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters of blocking the evacuation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call that ceasefire violations must end.

“They stressed that the ceasefire agreement… should be put into practice [and] the violations of the deal must be stopped,” Turkish presidential sources said.

Reports of atrocities

Turkey said it would meet with Russia and Iran in Moscow on December 27 to discuss a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

“We are striving to secure a ceasefire throughout the country and for negotiations for a political solution to start,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday spoke again with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as with Cavusoglu and Qatar’s Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

“In all of these conversations, the secretary has stressed the need to continue to try to stop the bloodshed and the violence through a meaningful ceasefire,” Kerry’s spokesman John Kirby said as the secretary of state placed a fourth call to UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Syria’s army has pressed a month-long assault that has seen it take more than 90 percent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.

The agreement came amid international concern about the plight of civilians in the city, and as the UN said it had reports of atrocities being committed by advancing government forces.

The UN said Tuesday it had credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed in recent days.

And the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria said it had received reports opposition fighters were blocking civilians from fleeing Aleppo and using them as human shields.

Aleppo, a cultural and economic hub second only to Damascus in importance, had been split between a rebel-controlled east and government-held west since 2012.

It was unclear how many civilians remained in rebel territory, after an estimated 130,000 fled to other parts of Aleppo during the government advance from mid-November.

More than 465 civilians, including 62 children, have died in east Aleppo during the assault, the Observatory said Wednesday in a new toll.

Another 142 civilians, among them 42 children, have been killed by rebel rocket fire on government-held zones in the same period, the monitor said.

Syria’s conflict has evolved from anti-Assad protests into a multi-front war that has killed more than 312,000 and drawn in world powers on all sides of the war.