Aleppo evacuation suspended amid sporadic reports of violence



The evacuation of civilians and fighters from east Aleppo was halted on Friday after sporadic reports of violence. Speaking to FRANCE 24, UN special envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura said the world must focus on avoiding a “final battle” for Aleppo.

A World Health Organization official in the war-ravaged Syrian city said the evacuation had been aborted and that Red Cross and Red Crescent workers had been ordered to leave the area. It wasn’t immediately clear how long the suspension, which was announced within a couple of hours after movements resumed on Friday, would last.

Regime and rebel sources offered conflicting accounts of what halted the evacuations. Syrian state TV said operations had been suspended after rebel fighters opened fire on a convoy at one of the crossing points linking the rebel enclave with government-controlled areas. Government sources also accused the rebels of blocking the evacuation of civilians from two pro-government villages elsewhere in Syria as agreed under the truce.

But a rebel official and the pro-opposition Orient TV accused Shiite militias loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad of firing on a bus convoy leaving east Aleppo. Their claim was backed up by Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu, which said “pro-regime terrorist groups” had opened fire on the convoy, adding that a “pro-regime crowd gathering on the road is also preventing the passage of vehicles”.

The Russian defence ministry said that the regime was going after the last fighters in the area. “The Syrian army’s operation to liberate rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods is complete. Syrian government troops are liquidating the radicals’ last pockets of resistance,” it said in a statement.

Tens of thousands to be evacuated

Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Friday, UN special envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura said the focus now was on avoiding a “final battle” for Aleppo.

He said the agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey had allowed for the evacuation of both civilians and fighters from the city’s last rebel-held enclave, but that a “huge logistical operation” was still under way for the evacuation of 50,000 more people.

De Mistura also called for a “serious commitment” on all sides for talks on a “political power-sharing” agreement in Syria.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said after a closed Security Council meeting on Friday that she supported a French-drafted UN resolution calling for independent international monitors to oversee the evacuations. A vote on the measure could come as early as this weekend.

Speaking at an end-of-the-year press conference on Friday, US President Barack Obama said that Assad along with his Iranian and Russian backers are largely responsible for the slaughter in Aleppo.

“This blood and these atrocities are on their hands,” he said, before admitting that he also “feels responsible” for the unfolding tragedy.

“There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and – because of my office, because I’m president of the United States – I feel responsible,” he said.

A convoy of buses and other vehicles bringing people out of eastern Aleppo was turned back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, a REUTERS witness said. The vehicles, including flatbed trucks packed with people exposed to the bitterly cold temperatures, remained stationary on a bridge at the Ramousah road junction.

The army began an operation to recapture all of Aleppo in mid-November and had overrun more than 90 percent of the former rebel bastion in the east of the city before the evacuation began Thursday morning.

Turkish officials said many were still preparing to leave.

“The evacuations are not over and many people still want to leave the area,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara.

Cavusoglu said “7,500 people had been saved” so far during the evacuation, while the Russian army said it had escorted out 9,500 people in total, including 4,500 rebels and 337 injured people.

According to the Turkish Red Cross, Turkish aid groups are preparing a 10,000-tent camp for those evacuated from Aleppo province near the two countries’ shared border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said around 8,500 people had already left the city.