Aleppo: Rebels bussed out before evacuations suspended taken to ‘killing zone’

Fighters and civilians who managed to leave the city before an apparent ceasefire breakdown are being taken to neighbouring Idlib province, which has also suffered heavy bombing in recent months - and is likely to see intensified attacks 

Friday 16 December 2016 11:21 GMT
Aleppo citizen films last message before leaving city

Up to 8,000 people managed to leave the last rebel neighbourhoods of wartorn Aleppo overnight before the fragile ceasefire appeared to collapse on Friday morning.

The bitter battle for control of the city’s eastern neighbourhoods is still not over as a truce hastily brokered on Wednesday night faltered amid accusations of gunfire at a checkpoint from both rebels and the Syrian government.

Evacuations have been suspended, but it is not clear how long for. A World Heath Organisation spokesperson said that their staff had been told to vacate the city, taking ambulances and buses with them. Several thousand of people have been waiting since daybreak in the cold for updates on whether they'll be allowed to leave.

The last batch of people who managed to board the convoys of green buses from rebel enclaves left in the early hours of Friday, some posting video messages as they went - but what awaits them is not neccessarily much better.

Standing in the rubble of what used to be a school, pharmacist and activist Modar Sheko sent a video showing the chaos as crowds of people waited for transport. “This is the last day in our beloved city,” he said in a Whatsapp message. A message a few hours later confirmed that he had made it to neighbouring Idlib province.

“It's heartbreaking to send the last message from the neighborhood I used to live, report from and work from,” journalist Zouhir al Shimale said in a tweeted video. He was later made to return to the city after the evacuations were halted.

Some residents graffitied messages such as “we will return” on walls and buildings and burned their belongings, rather than leave them for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and allied militias.

Those who have arrived safely, assisted by Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers, have been settling in schools and mosques, teams on the ground said, but the speed of developments in the crisis has left Idlib unprepared to deal with newcomers. Many are in need of urgent healthcare after spending 100 days without access to adequate medicine and food, and the freezing winter conditions make shelter a pressing priority.

Aleppo citizen sends last message before leaving for Idlib

The UN says as many as 50,000 fighters and civilians remain in east Aleppo, but figures are difficult to verify.

Thousands of people have died since Mr Assad announced a new Russian-backed campaign to retake besieged areas of the city in September, and the air and ground assault intensified two weeks ago.

While the ceasefire deal - the second this week after a Turkish and Russian brokered truce broke down on Wednesday - brought a temporary respite for those who have managed to get out, aid organisations have warned that the ordeal for people leaving Aleppo is far from over.

Rural Idlib province - the buses’ destination - is mostly controlled by rebel factions at odds with each other, including extremist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is linked to al-Qaeda.

The area has also seen intense bombing in the last few months - which is likely to intensify.

One senior European diplomat told the Associated Press last week that people had the choice of surviving for a few weeks in Idlib or dying in Aleppo.

“For the Russians it’s simple. Place [the rebels] all in Idlib and then they have all their rotten eggs in one basket,” the source added.

President Assad has hailed the “liberation” of Aleppo, which is his biggest victory so far in the six-year-old civil war.

In October, he said Aleppo would be "the springboard... to liberate other areas from terrorists" - a term the Syrian government uses to describe all rebels.

The United Nations Security Council is set to meet for more emergency discussions on the situation in Aleppo later on Friday.

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