UN delays evacuation of Aleppo over security fears

Aleppo Humanitarian Corridors

Aleppo Humanitarian Corridors

The UN said Friday that security concerns had forced it to delay planned evacuations from Syria’s Aleppo, despite a truce that was largely holding for a second day in the ravaged city.

The unilateral “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian government’s Russia-backed assault on the opposition-held east of the city was intended to allow civilians and rebels to leave.

But there was no sign that either civilians or rebels were heeding calls to depart, with Damascus and Moscow accusing opposition fighters of preventing evacuations.

The truce was initially described as lasting just 11 hours, but Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced late Thursday that it would be extended “by 24 hours,” leaving it unclear exactly when it would end.

East Aleppo, which the rebels captured in 2012, has been under siege by the army since mid-July and has faced devastating bombardment by the government and its ally Russia since the launch of an offensive to retake the whole city on September 22.

Nearly 500 people have been killed, more than a quarter of them children, since the assault began. More than 2,000 civilians have been wounded.

The scale of the casualties has prompted outrage in the West, with Washington saying the bombardment amounted to a possible war crime.

Russia announced a halt to its air strikes from Tuesday and the unilateral ceasefire from Thursday.

The Syrian army says it has opened eight corridors across the front line for the more than 250,000 civilians in rebel-held areas to leave but so far almost none have taken up the offer.

“There has been no movement in the corridors in the eastern district. For the moment, we haven’t seen any movement of residents or fighters,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

UN delays evacuations

An AFP correspondent on the government-held side of one crossing in the Bustan al-Qasr district also reported no movement early Friday.

He said just eight people passed through on Thursday.

Syrian state media accused rebels of preventing people from leaving the opposition-held side of the city.

The United Nations had hoped to use the truce to evacuate injured people from the city, and possibly deliver aid.

On Thursday, UN humanitarian task force chief Jan Egeland said Russia, the Syrian government and rebels had given permission for medical evacuations.

But on Friday afternoon, a spokesman said the operation had been delayed because of security concerns.

“Medical evacuations of sick and injured could unfortunately not begin this morning as planned because the necessary conditions were not in place,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations humanitarian office.

No aid has entered Aleppo since July 7 and food rations will run out by the end of October, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned on Thursday.

The UN has been criticised by the Syrian opposition for focusing more on enabling people to leave than providing relief supplies to allow them to stay.

A joint statement by the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army said UN policy “plays into the Assad regime’s plans to empty Aleppo.”

It accused the world body of becoming a “tool in the hands of Russia.”

‘Crimes of historic proportions’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused rebels of violating the ceasefire “and preventing the evacuation of the population,” in a telephone call with his US counterpart John Kerry on Thursday.

Moscow and Damascus have called on civilians to leave so that their offensive can focus on former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Fateh al-Sham Front.

Moscow has shown no sign that its intervention in support of its Syrian ally will end any time soon, despite criticism of the civilian death toll and allegations hospitals have been hit.

A Russian aircraft carrier battle group is currently in the North Sea en route from the Baltic to the eastern Mediterranean.

On Friday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein denounced the siege and bombardment of Aleppo as “crimes of historic proportions” at a special session of the UN human rights council in Geneva.

Western governments have also denounced the violence, but have been divided over how to respond.

After meeting in Brussels on Thursday, European Union leaders backed down from an explicit threat of sanctions against Russia but warned they would consider “all available options” if atrocities continue.

Damascus meanwhile warned Turkey after a series of deadly strikes against Syrian Kurdish fighters in the north of the country.

In a statement, the army threatened to “down by all available means” Turkish aircraft violating Syrian air space.

Since late August, Turkey has been carrying out an operation targeting both the Islamic State jihadist group and Syrian Kurdish fighters considered “terrorists” by Ankara.