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Rebel fighters and civilians had been preparing to evacuate eastern Aleppo under a ceasefire deal aimed at ending more than four years of clashes in the city.
But hours after the scheduled start of the evacuation, government buses parked outside the rebel-held districts were called back, signalling that the deal brokered late on Tuesday by Russia and Turkey was off.
Activists and rebels trapped in the opposition’s last sliver of territory said pro-government forces had struck their district with dozens of rockets since mid-morning.
“The bombardment is scarcely to be believed on the eastern neighborhoods and until now 40 people have been wounded,” said Ibrahim al-Haj, a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense first responders. “They are using all forms of weapons.”
The Russian defense ministry said in a statement that the rebels “resumed the hostilities” at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the northwest.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the Syrian government and its allies of trying to scuttle the deal.
“We see now that the regime and other groups are trying to obstruct this (the deal),” he said in remarks quoted by the state-run Anadolu Agency. “This includes Russia, Iran, forces supported by Iran and the regime.”
As reports came in that the evacuation had been delayed, France’s foreign minister said it was imperative to have UN observers on the ground managing the process.
“France wants the presence of UN observers on the ground and humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross must intervene,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told France 2 television.
The United Nations said earlier it was “not involved” in plans to evacuate fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo but it was ready to help.
Yasser al-Youssef, a political official from the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group, accused the government and Iran of “blocking civilians from leaving after adding new conditions” to the deal announced on Tuesday.
“They want to link this deal to other issues, including the areas of Fuaa and Kafraya,” he added, referring to two government-held Shiite-majority villages in the northwest that remain under rebel siege.
Assad’s biggest victory
The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove rebels back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire.
As word of the deal spread late on Tuesday, celebrations broke out in the government-controlled western sector of Aleppo, with convoys of cars driving around honking their cars and waving Syrian flags from the windows.
Retaking Aleppo would be President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest victory yet in the civil war. The country’s former commercial powerhouse, the city has long been regarded as a major gateway between Turkey and Syria, and the biggest prize in the conflict.
In the last parts of the city still held by the rebels, large crowds gathered before dawn awaiting evacuation.
Many spent the night out in the street despite a storm, as they had fled from other areas and had nowhere to stay.
Tens of thousands of civilians have stayed on in the ever-shrinking rebel enclave for fear of arrest or torture by government forces.
Many more have fled to government-held districts or to territory controlled by Kurdish fighters.
Under the evacuation deal, both civilians and rebel fighters are to be transported to rebel-held territory elsewhere in northern Syria, though the route they will take is unclear.
Syria’s military media said the gunmen would be evacuated through the Ramouseh crossing and from there to rebel-controlled areas of northern Idlib province.
“Aleppo will be declared a secure and liberated city within the coming hours,” it said on its Telegram channel.
Ahmed Karali, a rebel spokesman, said those leaving the city would head first to rural areas in western Aleppo province before heading north.
The agreement Tuesday came after world leaders and aid agencies issued dramatic appeals on behalf of trapped residents and the UN human rights office said that pro-government forces reportedly killed 82 civilians as they closed in on the last remaining rebel areas.
The UN said it had received reports that 11 women and 13 children were among those killed.
Spokesman Rupert Colville, speaking to reporters in Geneva, said the reports described pro-government forces entering homes and killing civilians “on the spot”. He said the reports came in late Monday and he didn’t know exactly when the killings took place.
That and other reports of mass killings, which could not be independently confirmed, reinforced fears of atrocities in the final hours of the battle for the city.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Tuesday’s emergency Security Council meeting he had received “credible reports” of civilians killed by intense bombing and summary executions by pro-government forces.
“Aleppo should represent the end of a quest for military victory” and not the start of a new brutal campaign, he said.
Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, denied the reports of mass executions and revenge attacks but added that it was Syria’s “constitutional right” to go after “terrorists”, a reference to all opposition fighters.
“Aleppo has been liberated from terrorists and those who toyed with terrorism,” he said. “Aleppo has returned to the nation.”
A government win in Aleppo would significantly strengthen Assad’s hand but does not end the conflict – significant parts of Syria are still outside government control and huge swaths of the country are a devastated wasteland. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011 with peaceful protests against the Assad family’s four-decade rule.