Aleppo battle: Hopes rise for evacuation of rebel-held areas

Syrian pro-government forces advance in the Jisr al-Haj neighbourhood during the ongoing military operation to retake remaining rebel-held areas in the northern embattled city of Aleppo on December 14, 2016Image copyright
AFP/Getty Images

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Syrian pro-government forces moved through the Jisr al-Haj neighbourhood on Wednesday

Hopes have risen that a planned evacuation of rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo will now begin soon, after an earlier deal collapsed.

Rebel sources said a new truce had been in effect from 03:00GMT and evacuations would take place early on Thursday.

Sources from the Syrian military, the pro-government Hezbollah and Russian media said preparations were under way.

Rebel fighters and civilians had been due to leave early on Wednesday, but a ceasefire collapsed.

Latest updates from Aleppo

Reuters news agency quoted one Syrian official source on Thursday morning as saying that the “operation to organise the departure of gunmen from eastern Aleppo has now started”.

Media captionMilad al-Shehabi, filmmaker in Aleppo: “This could be my last message”

A media unit run by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement backing the Syrian government, said there had been “big complications” but that “intensive contacts between the responsible parties… led to re-consolidating a ceasefire to exit armed fighters from eastern districts in the next few hours”.

Soldiers from Russia – Syria’s ally – would lead the rebels out, escorting them on a corridor towards Idlib city on buses and ambulances, with surveillance drones monitoring the situation, Russian media said.

A statement from the Russian Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria, part of Russia’s ministry of defence, said Syrian authorities had guaranteed the safety of all members of the armed groups who decided to leave Aleppo.

Ismail Alabdullah, a volunteer for the White Helmet rescue group, told the BBC that buses had now entered the area in which he was working and that he hoped the evacuation would now take place.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that the first convoy of wounded people had now started to move from eastern to western Aleppo.

BBC Arabic’s Asaf Aboud, in Aleppo, says there was some shelling by rebels and air strikes by government forces overnight.

The new deal should allow the simultaneous evacuation of two villages being besieged by rebels in north-western Syria.

Media captionHeavy shelling hit Aleppo on Wednesday

Syria’s government and its ally Iran had insisted the evacuation from eastern Aleppo could happen only when those villages were evacuated.

On Wednesday morning, buses and ambulances had been brought to evacuate rebel fighters and their families – only to be turned away shortly afterwards.

Hours after the first agreement – brokered mainly by Russia and Turkey – collapsed, air strikes resumed over rebel-held territory, where at least 50,000, but possibly as many as 100,000, civilians remain.

The UN said raids by the Syrian government and its allies on an area “packed with civilians” most probably violated international law.

Most politically sensitive deal – BBC’s Lyse Doucet in Beirut

Many of Syria’s prolonged battles and punishing sieges have ended with a negotiated pullout of rebel fighters.

The day of departure is often marked by delays and new demands. Aleppo is no different. But this is the most politically sensitive deal of all.

The first deal appeared to upset Iran as well as the Syrian government – they felt they did not have enough of a say.

Both insisted, as they have done for aid convoys and evacuations elsewhere, that there must be a simultaneous mission for injured fighters and civilians in the Shia villages of Foah and Kefraya which are besieged by rebel forces. There have been arguments over other details, too.

Only when buses are boarded, and ambulances pull away, can it be said with any certainty that this battle is drawing to a close.

Meanwhile, the BBC has learned that Western forces are using satellites and unmanned aircraft to gather evidence of possible war crimes in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

Besieged residents have faced weeks of bombardment and chronic food and fuel shortages.

Medical facilities in the city have largely been reduced to rubble, as rebels have been squeezed into ever-smaller areas by a major government offensive, backed by Russian air power.

It is not clear how many rebel fighters remain in the besieged areas. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said there were approximately 1,500, about 30% of whom were from the jihadist group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front.

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AFP/Getty Images

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A Bosnian Muslim woman cries at a demonstration in Sarajevo

Meanwhile, demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Aleppo have taken place in cities across the world, including Hamburg in Germany, Sarajevo in Bosnia and Rabat in Morocco.

The lights of the Eiffel Tower were also dimmed. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said she hoped the gesture would highlight the need for “urgent action” to help the people of Aleppo.

Media captionThe lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris have been turned off as a gesture of support for the people of Aleppo

Aleppo battle: Hopes rise for evacuation of rebel-held areas}

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