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Thousands of civilians and rebels trapped in eastern Aleppo awaited evacuation Saturday as negotiators bickered over a deal that would see quid pro quo evacuations from rebel and government-controlled areas.
Confusion reigned on the ground Saturday as civilians and rebels waited for evacuations to resume as representatives of rebel groups and the Syrian government tried to hammer out a deal, with each side blaming the other for an implementation failure.
Earlier Saturday, representatives of the powerful rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, told reporters that a deal allowing the resumption of evacuations from Aleppo had been reached. The deal would also allow for the transfer of civilians from the rebel-held mainly Shiite towns of Kefraya and Foua, as well as the government-blockaded towns of Madaya and Zabadani.
Reporting from the Lebanese capital of Beirut Saturday, FRANCE 24’s Adam Pletts explained that the deal “had been broadened” to include evacuations from the four towns. “We have firstly Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province and these two towns were added to the agreement as of yesterday. And that was part of the reason that it broke down because we understand that evacuations didn’t start from those towns. But in this new arrangement, there will be an evacuation of wounded people from those [towns] and also from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani, which lie much further south on the Lebanese border. It’s actually something of a revival of a former agreement, these four towns having been in a similar arrangement back in January this year, allowing reciprocal aid in and out of one and the other,” said Pletts.
But as aid agencies waited for the green light to start evacuations, there were delays on the ground with Ahrar al-Sham representatives blaming Iran and its Shiite militias for holding up the deal.
“Iran and its sectarian proxies are using the humanitarian situation of our people in besieged Aleppo and preventing civilians from leaving until the evacuation of their groups in Foua and Kefraya,” Munir al Sayal, head of Ahrar al-Sham’s political wing, told Reuters.
There was no confirmation from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime or its allies Russia and Iran, which are under mounting international pressure to end what US President Barack Obama denounced as the “horror” in Aleppo.
Residents freezing in destroyed buildings
As the parties to the Syrian conflict traded accusations, thousands of residents of Syria’s former commercial hub endured the bitter cold in bombed-out apartment blocks near designated evacuation points, waiting for the state-provided green buses to take them out of besieged neighbourhoods.
In Aleppo’s al-Amiriyah district, Abu Omar told the AFP the situation was getting even more desperate. After waiting outside in the cold for nine hours the previous day, he had returned on Saturday only to be told by rebels the buses were not coming.
“I’m tired of having to carry all our things and come back every day for nothing,” he said.
“There’s no more food or drinking water, and the situation is getting worse by the day,” he said, adding that his four children were sick because of the cold.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed for safe passage for the thousands of people including women, children, as well as the sick and injured who waited through the night “in constant fear and anxiety”.
“People have suffered a lot. Please come to an agreement and help save thousands of lives,” said ICRC Syria delegation head Marianne Gasser. “We cannot abandon these people.”
From Ankara to New York, diplomats work the phones
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated that as of Thursday there were around 40,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 5,000 opposition fighters in Aleppo’s rebel enclave.
Tens of thousands of civilians had already fled opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo after the regime began its latest assault in mid-November.
The Russian defence ministry said after evacuations were suspended that only hardline rebels remained.
“The operation has also opened a new window for the possibility of establishing a halt to hostilities not only in Aleppo province but in other areas of Syria,” the ministry said.
On Friday, a convoy of evacuees that had already left east Aleppo when the operation was suspended was forced to turn back, an AFP correspondent said.
The ICRC, supervising the evacuations, said it was looking into reports of shooting before the convoy was turned around.
The main regional supporters of the rival sides in Syria’s devastating civil war engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to try to secure a resumption of evacuations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose government is a key backer of the opposition, said he had spoken more than a dozen times with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Friday.
Cavusoglu and Lavrov also took part in a three-way call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, Moscow said.
In New York, the UN Security Council could vote as early as this weekend on a French-drafted proposal to allow international observers in Aleppo and ensure urgent aid deliveries.
Obama called Friday for impartial observers to monitor efforts to evacuate civilians from the devastated city, and warned Assad he would not be able to “slaughter his way to legitimacy”.