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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Clashes erupt as Aleppo evacuation delayed

Fri Dec 16, 2016 | 7:03 AM EST Aleppo evacuation suspended amid dispute over villages Empty buses are seen leaving after the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo was suspended, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki Empty buses are seen leaving after the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo was suspended, Syria December 16, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki Aleppo evacuation suspended amid dispute over...X By Laila Bassam, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and John Davison | ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT The evacuation of people from the last opposition-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo was suspended on Friday after pro-government militias demanded that the wounded should also be brought out of two Shi'ite villages being besieged by rebel fighters. The second day of the operation to evacuate Aleppo's rebel enclave ground to a halt amid recriminations from all sides after a morning that had seen the pace of the operation pick up. Rebel sources accused pro-government Shi'ite militias of opening fire on bus convoys taking evacuees out of the city. A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups. But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the villages of Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province should also be evacuated. It also said rebels had bombarded a road due to be used by buses to conduct the evacuation from the Shi'ite villages. Iran, one of Syria's main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a ceasefire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said. There has been no sign of any evacuation from the villages, which have long been besieged by insurgents in the mostly rebel-held province. Aid agencies involved in the Aleppo evacuation had been told to leave the area without explanation after the operation was aborted, the World Health Organization said. CARS AND BUSES Earlier, private cars had been allowed to leave Aleppo along with convoys of buses evacuating rebel fighters and civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said a total of 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, had left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances since the evacuation began on Thursday morning. Photos sent by an activist waiting to leave the rebel-held sector of east Aleppo showed crowds of people in thick coats in a street lined with flattened buildings in the cold winter air. Private cars and minibuses with bundles strapped to their roofs filled the street, as people sat on rubble or stood next to bags of their belongings. In a message sent to journalists, the activist said children were "hungry and crying" and people were "exhausted", not knowing if buses would arrive to take them out. By early Friday morning, nearly 200 evacuated patients had arrived in eight "overwhelmed" hospitals in government-held western Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey, according to the WHO. The United Nations says 50,000 people remain in rebel-held Aleppo, of whom about 10,000 would be taken to Idlib province and the rest would go to government-held city districts. Idlib province, mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, is not a popular destination for fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, where nationalist rebel groups predominated. Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian air strikes but it is unclear if the government will push for a ground assault or simply seek to contain rebels there for now. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north. Two potential sites just inside Syria have been identified to set up a camp, which could host up to 80,000 people, Turkish officials said, adding that they expected up to 35,000 people to come. Turkey would continue to accept sick and wounded coming from Aleppo. PUTIN SEEKS CEASEFIRE Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's most powerful ally, said he was working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire. Speaking in Japan, Putin said the new talks, if they happened, could be held in Kazakhstan and would complement U.N.-brokered negotiations that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva. "The next step is to reach an agreement on a total ceasefire across the whole of Syria. We are conducting very active negotiations with representatives of the armed opposition, brokered by Turkey," the Russian leader said. Aleppo, a once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war that has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State. The United States was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a ceasefire this week. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Syrian government was carrying out "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the U.N. Security Council would meet on Friday to discuss a quick deployment of U.N. observers to east Aleppo to ensure there were no atrocities and that humanitarian aid reached the city. The Syrian White Helmets civil defence group and other rights organizations accused Russia of committing or being complicit in war crimes in Syria, saying Russian air strikes in the Aleppo region had killed 1,207 civilians, including 380 children. A senior Russian general said on Thursday that the Syrian army had almost finished its operations in Aleppo. But the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week. (Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership) ==================== By Laila Bassam, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Tom Perry | ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT An operation to evacuate thousands of civilians and fighters from the last rebel bastion in Aleppo was under way on Thursday despite an earlier attack on a medical convoy by pro-government forces. As buses and ambulances moved into the besieged enclave, the International Committee of the Red Cross said efforts to evacuate around 200 wounded people, part of a wider ceasefire deal, had begun. Russia, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the evacuation of 5,000 Syrian rebels and their family members from eastern Aleppo had started. Earlier, ambulances trying to evacuate people came under fire from fighters loyal to the Syrian government, who injured three people, a rescue service spokesman said. The evacuation of Aleppo's last rebel enclave would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad. "Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick and children, including orphans," said Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian adviser for Syria. A Reuters witness in the government-controlled part of the city said columns of black smoke could be seen rising from the rebel-held area. Residents hoping to be taken out have been burning personal belongings they cannot take with them and do not want to leave for government forces to loot. "Outside every building you see a small fire, papers, women's clothes," one resident told Reuters. RUSSIAN DRONES Russian soldiers were preparing to lead rebels out of Aleppo, the defence ministry in Moscow said. Syria had guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families, who would be taken towards Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria which is outside government control. Russia would use drones to monitor rebels and their families being transported in buses and ambulances along a humanitarian corridor, the ministry said. The evacuation agreement would include the safe passage of wounded from the Shi'ite villages of Foua and Kefraya near Idlib that are besieged by rebels, according to a military media unit run by Hezbollah, a group allied to Assad. A convoy set off to evacuate the villages on Thursday, Syrian state media said. On Wednesday, rebels attributed the hold up of the ceasefire and evacuation of the insurgent area of Aleppo to demands by Iranian-backed militias that the wounded in Foua and Kefraya should be taken to government areas. Efforts to evacuate eastern Aleppo began earlier in the week with a truce brokered by Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, and Turkey, which has backed the opposition. That agreement broke down following renewed fighting on Wednesday and the evacuation did not take place then as planned. An official from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said a new truce came into effect at 2.30am (0030GMT) on Thursday. Shortly before the new deal was announced, clashes raged in Aleppo. Government forces made a new advance in Sukkari - one of a handful of districts still held by rebels - and brought half of the neighborhood under their control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. The Russian defense ministry said - before the report of the government forces' advance in Sukkari - that the rebels controlled an enclave of only 2.5 square km (1 square mile). RAPID ADVANCES The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire. By taking control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia's air force and an array of Shi'ite militias from across the region. Rebels have been backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but that support has fallen far short of the direct military assistance given to Assad by Russia and Iran. Russia's decision to deploy its air force to Syria more than a year ago turned the war in Assad's favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year. The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria. Carla del Ponte, a U.N. investigator and former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, told German newspaper Die Zeit that Russian and Syrian bombing of homes, hospitals and schools amounted to war crimes, as did the starving of parts of Aleppo for months by militias loyal to the government. (Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut and Giles Elgood in London, editing by Peter Millership) =============================== Wed Dec 14, 2016 | 6:27 AM EST 22h ago | 00:46 Syrian army, Iraqi militia reportedly killing Aleppo civilians - U.N. Clashes erupt as Aleppo evacuation delayed By Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington | ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT The planned evacuation of rebel districts of Aleppo stalled on Wednesday as air strikes and heavy shelling hit the city and Iran was said to have imposed new conditions on the deal. Iran, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main backers in the battle for Aleppo, wanted a simultaneous evacuation of wounded from the villages of Foua and Kefraya that are besieged by rebels, according to rebel and U.N. sources. Rebel groups said that was just an excuse to hold up the evacuation, which a pro-opposition TV station said could now be delayed until Thursday. A ceasefire brokered on Tuesday by Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, and Turkey was intended to end years of fighting in the city, giving the Syrian leader his biggest victory in more than five years of war. But air strikes, shelling and gunfire erupted on Wednesday morning and a monitoring group said the truce appeared to have collapsed. Syrian state television said rebel shelling of the Bustan al-Qasr district, recently recaptured by the army, had killed six people. Russia said government forces were responding to rebel attacks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said rebel resistance was likely to end in the next two or three days. Officials in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad could not be reached immediately for comment on why the evacuation, expected to start in the early hours of Wednesday, had been delayed. Nobody had left by dawn, according to a Reuters witness waiting at the agreed departure point. Twenty buses waited with engines running but showed no sign of moving into rebel districts. People in eastern Aleppo packed their bags and burned personal belongings, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed militia allies. In what appeared to be a separate development from the planned evacuation, the Russian defence ministry said 6,000 civilians and 366 fighters had left rebel-held districts over the past 24 hours. RAPID ADVANCES The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire. By taking full control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia's air force and an array of Shi'ite militias from across the region. Rebels groups have been supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but the support they have enjoyed has fallen far short of the direct military backing given to Assad by Russia and Iran. Russia's decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad's favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year. The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria. Russia regards the fall of Aleppo as a major victory against terrorists, as it and Assad characterize all the rebel groups, both Islamist and nationalist, fighting to oust him. A member of Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walks past a damaged building in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 6/6 A member of Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walks past a damaged building in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 12, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail 1/6 People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail A man pushes a woman on a cart as they flee deeper with others into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail 2/6 A man pushes a woman on a cart as they flee deeper with others into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail A general view shows the damage in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 3/6 A general view shows the damage in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki Smoke and flames rise after air strikes on rebel-controlled besieged area of Aleppo, as seen from a government-held side, in Syria December 11, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 4/6 Smoke and flames rise after air strikes on rebel-controlled besieged area of Aleppo, as seen from a government-held side, in Syria December 11, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki Boys stand amid the damage in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 5/6 Boys stand amid the damage in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki A member of Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walks past a damaged building in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki 6/6 A member of Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walks past a damaged building in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 12, 2016. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail 1/6 People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail › But at the United Nations, the United States said the violence in the city, besieged and bombarded for months, represented "modern evil". The once-flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverized during the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world's worst refugee crisis and allowed the rise of Islamic State. As the battle for Aleppo unfolded, global concern has risen over the plight of the 250,000 civilians who were thought to remain in its rebel-held eastern sector before the sudden army advance began at the end of November. Tens of thousands of them fled to parts of the city held by the government or by a Kurdish militia, and tens of thousands more retreated further into the rebel enclave as it rapidly shrank under the army's lightning advance. The rout of rebels in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a "complete meltdown of humanity". There were food and water shortages in rebel areas, with all hospitals closed. "SHOT IN THEIR HOMES" On Tuesday, the United Nations voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of "slaughter". "The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes," said Rupert Colville, a U.N. spokesman. "There could be many more." The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and Russia said on Tuesday rebels had "kept over 100,000 people in east Aleppo as human shields". Fear stalked the city's streets. Some survivors trudged in the rain past dead bodies to the government-held west or the few districts still in rebel hands. Others stayed in their homes and awaited the Syrian army's arrival. For all of them, fear of arrest, conscription or summary execution added to the daily terror of bombardment. "People are saying the troops have lists of families of fighters and are asking them if they had sons with the terrorists. (They are) then either left or shot and left to die," said Abu Malek al-Shamali in Seif al-Dawla, one of the last rebel-held districts. Terrible conditions were described by city residents. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. "There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said. (Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Peter Millership, Paul Tait and Giles Elgood)

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