Aleppo ceasefire is back on track, Syrian forces claim

Evacuations from rebel-held areas are due to begin ‘within hours’, according to reports

A volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets, in eastern Aleppo says 100,000 residents are trapped in his neighbourhood as Syrian government forces retake the city. Video: Reuters

 

Syrian rebel officials said on Wednesday that a ceasefire deal for Aleppo was back on track, and that its implementation, including evacuations from the last rebel-held areas of the city, would begin “within hours”.

“An agreement has been reached and within the coming hours its implementation will begin,” Abdul Salam Abdul Razak, a military spokesman for the Nour al-Din al Zinki group, told Reuters.

He said the deal included the evacuation of people from two villages besieged by rebels in Idlib province, a condition introduced by the government side in order for the truce deal, which stalled on Wednesday amid heavy fighting in Aleppo, to resume.

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

An official in the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said implementation would begin at about 6am (4am GMT) on Thursday.

‘War crimes’

Plans to evacuate besieged rebel districts of Aleppo had been under threat on Wednesday, as renewed air strikes and shelling rocked the city, with the UN saying a bombardment by government forces may constitute a war crime.

Responding to the reports of air strikes, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said Syria’s government forces and their allies have almost certainly violated international law and probably committed war crimes by the latest bombardment of civilians hoping to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo.

On Wednesday, Iran, one of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s main backers in the battle that has all but ended four years of rebel resistance in the city, had imposed new conditions for the truce, saying it wanted the simultaneous evacuation of wounded from two villages west of Aleppo that were besieged by rebel fighters.

Meanwhile, insurgents fired shells at the two majority Shia villages, causing some casualties, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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.

Under the terms of the deal, negotiated between Turkish intelligence and the Russian military, the ceasefire went into effect at 6pm local time on Tuesday.

However, air strikes, shelling and gunfire erupted on Wednesday and Turkey accused government forces of breaking the truce. Syrian state television also said rebel shelling had killed six people.

“The clashes are violent and bombardment is very heavy . . . it seems as though [the ceasefire] is finished,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the rebels now controlled an enclave of only 2.5sq km.

Officials in the military alliance backing Assad could not be reached for comment on why the evacuation, expected to start in the early hours of Wednesday, had stalled.

Nobody had left by dawn under the plan, according to a Reuters witness waiting at the departure point, where 20 buses stood with engines running but showed no sign of moving into rebel districts.

People in besieged eastern Aleppo had packed their bags and burned personal belongings, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed militia allies.

The evacuation of east Aleppo would mean the opposition has ceded the entire city, Syria’s former commercial capital, to the Assad regime, surrendering the last major urban stronghold where it maintained an active presence.

UN war crimes investigators said the Syrian government bore the main responsibility for preventing any attacks and reprisals in eastern Aleppo and that it must hold to account any troops or allied forces committing violations.

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.

A total of 15,000 people, including 4,000 rebel fighters, wanted to leave Aleppo, according to a media unit run by the Syrian government’s ally Hizbullah.

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, Mr Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shia militias from across the region.

Rebels have been supported by the US, 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 favour 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 in re-establishing control over all of Syria.

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.

The rout of rebels in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the UN 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 UN voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people, including 11 women and 13 children, in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

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”.

Some survivors of the onslaught 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.

“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.

“There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

Children trapped

The UN children’s fund said earlier in the day that 100 children were reportedly trapped inside a building under attack in besieged Aleppo.

“According to alarming reports from a doctor in the city, many children, possibly more than 100, unaccompanied or separated from their families, are trapped in a building, under heavy attack in east Aleppo,” Unicef said in a statement.

“We urge all parties to the conflict to allow the safe and immediate evacuation of all children.”

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, addressing the security council on the situation in Aleppo on Tuesday evening, said it was wishful thinking to believe that military advances would solve Syria’s crisis, and called for an immediate end to violence by all sides.

On Tuesday, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power also said the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran were responsible for putting a noose around the neck of civilians in Aleppo.

“It is your noose,” she said, at a meeting of the UN Security Council.

“Three member states of the UN, contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you, you are plotting your next assault.

“Are you truly incapable of shame, is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”