Syrian rebels claim Aleppo evacuation deal is back on

Rebel officials say implementation of deal to begin by early Thursday morning

May Bulman
Wednesday 14 December 2016 22:11
The ceasefire, which collapsed on Wednesday morning, was re-implemented at midnight Thursday, rebel officials said
The ceasefire, which collapsed on Wednesday morning, was re-implemented at midnight Thursday, rebel officials said

Syrian rebels have said a deal to evacuate rebel-held parts of Aleppo is back on track, 12 hours after it collapsed.

Rebel officials said the ceasefire would go into effect later on Wednesday night and evacuations from the opposition-held east of the city would begin early on Thursday, according to reports.

An official in the pro-Damascus military alliance confirmed to Reuters the truce deal was on, and said around 15,000 people would be evacuated from the majority Shia villages Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province in return for the evacuation from Aleppo of “militants and their families and whoever wants to leave among civilians.”

He said those leaving Aleppo would head for rebel-controlled Idlib, to the west of the city. Much confusion remains over the deal: one rebel official denied late on Wednesday that 15,000 people would leave the two loyalist villages and said only the wounded would be evacuated.

An official with the Jabha Shamiya rebel group however said implementation would begin around 6am (4am GMT) on Thursday. He said around 1,000 wounded people would be the first to leave eastern Aleppo, and the entire evacuation should be complete within three days.

It was not immediately clear how a deal had been reached, and it was soon thrown in doubt by the military media unit run by Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed Shia group allied to the Damascus government.

“The negotiations are seeing big complications, in light of tension and operations on the front lines,” it said.

The evacuation from the last slivers of territory the rebels still hold in east Aleppo was supposed to begin early on Wednesday morning, but shelling quickly resumed after both sides accused the other of violating the peace.

The original Turkish and Russian brokered ceasefire agreement - which did not include the Syrian government or UN in consultations - reportedly ran into trouble after Shia militias added fresh demands to the deal, such as the evacuation of injured pro-government forces from the loyalist villags in Idlib.

It was supposed to include the evacuation of up to 5,000 people from Aleppo to Idlib.

But Hezbollah's al-Manar TV broadcast footage showed the Syrian government's green buses leaving the agreed checkpoint without any passengers, indicating the evacuations would be futher delayed and that the short-lived promise of a ceasefire was over.

Many in east Aleppo didn't sleep on Tuesday night as they awaited the start of the arranged passage out of the city. Monitors reported that rebel fighters had prevented civilians who wanted to leave from doing so.

Activists sent audio recordings of planes overhead and explosions as the news broke on Wednesday that the ceasefire had completely failed. “We want to leave... we don't want more massacres, let us leave, what is happening,” one said in a Whatsapp message.

Russia's Interfax news agency said that pro-government forces would continue the operation to quash resistance in the last opposition neighbourhoods. Russia also said that 366 fighters and 6,000 civlians had fled overnight from fighting in what appeared to be a separate development to the planned evacuations.

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was working with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to resurrect the deal, any ceasefire deal would only save “terrorists”, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people are thought to still be trapped in the last pockets of rebel territory in east Aleppo after the Syrian army and Iran-backed militas captured all but a few remaining neighbourhoods in the divided city on Monday.

Reports of the executions of 82 civilians, including women and children, by pro-government militias, have alarmed rights groups and the international community,as has the destruction and death caused by incessant bombing and a collapse of medical aid.

Rebels in Idlib retaliated for the collapse of the deal by targeting two government-controlled villages in the area with rockets.

Fighting in Aleppo may not continue for much longer, however. President Assad's forces have all but retaken the city, which after four years of fierce fighting has become the epicentre of Syria's bloody civil war.

Rebel supply lines were cut off in July, and an intense Russian-backed bombing campaign since September has killed hundreds, decimated medical infrastructure, and brought the last urban rebel stronghold in Syria to its knees.

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