Syria Suspends Aleppo Evacuations, Cites Gunfire

Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo ride on pick-up trucks along the government-held area of al-Ramousah bridge, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo ride on pick-up trucks along the government-held area of al-Ramousah bridge, Syria, Friday. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed on Friday, saying that rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave, state media reported.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the suspension would last or whether it would delay the ceasefire deal under which tens of thousands of residents and rebel fighters are being evacuated to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process likely to take several days.

Earlier on Friday, as the evacuations resumed for a second day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a major new Syria peace initiative, saying he and his Turkish counterpart are working to set up peace talks between Damascus and the opposition in Kazakhstan.

The evacuations seal the end of the Syrian rebels’ most important stronghold — the eastern part of the city of Aleppo — and mark a watershed moment in the country’s civil war, now in its sixth year.

In announcing the suspensions, Syrian media also claimed that the rebels had tried to take with them captives they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave during bitter battles to defend their territory from a ferocious, weeks-long onslaught by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.

Lebanon’s Al-Manar Hezbollah channel said the Syrian army stopped the evacuation process because the rebels had violated the ceasefire deal. Hezbollah terrorists are fighting in the Syrian conflict alongside Assad’s forces.

The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen said buses that were parked at the Ramouseh crossing point had left the area after it was targeted by terrorists.

Speaking on a visit to Japan, Putin said that the negotiations would take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are also working for an overall truce in Syria. Putin said Ankara had helped broker the rebel exit from Aleppo that is currently underway.

However, the Western-backed Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the location Putting had proposed for e negotiations.

On Friday morning, dozens of green public buses and ambulances were parked in the southern Aleppo neighborhood of Ramouseh to evacuate more people from eastern Aleppo. Syrian state media showed a truck with dozens of men, driving through the corridor leading the rebel-held parts of the surrounding provinces.

The channel said that since the early hours of the day, four convoys have left Aleppo. It said some of the evacuees were using their own vehicles to leave.

There have been contradicting numbers of how many people have been evacuated from Aleppo on Thursday. Syrian state media reported than more than 9,000 people were evacuated on Thursday alone in Aleppo. The channel said the evacuees included 3,475 men, 3,137 women, 2,359 children and 108 wounded people.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said about 4,000 civilians were taken out on Thursday. Syrian state news agency says 2,300 opposition fighters and their families left Aleppo the previous night.

Russia, a key Assad ally, says that more than 6,462 people, including more than 3,000 rebels and 301 wounded, have been taken out.

For the opposition, the evacuation was a humiliating defeat. A smiling Assad called it a historic event comparable to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran.

The Lebanon-based pan-Arab stations Al-Mayadeen interviewed an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the central province of Hama who said that buses and ambulances are waiting to evacuate thousands of people two Shiite villages besieged by rebels — a last-minute condition that became part of the ceasefire deal for Aleppo.

The SARC official said they will likely begin the evacuation of 15,000 people from Foua and Kefraya adding that the priority will be for the wounded, elderly people, women, children and those with chronic illnesses.

State media said 110 buses and 19 medical teams were being ready to take those being evacuated from the two Shiite villages. Iran had demanded to tie the evacuations from Foua and Kefraya with Aleppo’s.

Separately, Hezbollah’s media arm said Syrian government supporters closed the road used by evacuees form Aleppo, demanding the wounded from the two villages be allowed to leave.

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