Thousands evacuated from Aleppo after new deal

UN Security Council agrees resolution for officials to monitor evacuations in Syrian city

Several buses en route to evacuate ill and wounded people from the besieged Syrian villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province were attacked and burned on Sunday (December 18). the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state television has said.

 

Thousands were evacuated from the last rebel-held enclave in Aleppo on Monday after a deal was reached to allow people to leave two besieged pro-government villages in nearby Idlib province.

In bitter winter weather, convoys of buses from eastern Aleppo reached rebel-held areas to the west of the city, and more buses left the Shia Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya for government lines, according to a UN official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a total of 12,000 civilians had been evacuated from Aleppo, including 4,500 since midnight on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council agreed a resolution on Monday calling for UN officials and others to be allowed to monitor evacuations from east Aleppo and the safety of civilians still there.

The draft resolution was the result of a compromise between Russia and France.

The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, denounced the resolution as propaganda, saying the last of the rebels were leaving and Aleppo would be “clean” by Monday evening.

The evacuation of civilians, including wounded people, from the two Shia villages had been demanded by the Syrian army and its allies before they would allow fighters and civilians trapped in Aleppo to depart.

The stand-off halted the Aleppo evacuation over the weekend.

“First limited evacuations, finally, tonight from east Aleppo and Foua & Kefraya. Many thousands more are waiting to be evacuated soon,” Jan Egeland, who chairs the UN aid task force in Syria, tweeted late on Sunday night.

Syrian state TV and pro-Damascus stations showed the first four buses arriving in Aleppo from the besieged villages, accompanied by pick-up trucks.

In Idlib, aid workers said more than 60 buses had arrived from Aleppo. Some evacuees were being taken in by relatives or other residents, while others could be housed in tents.

The recapture of Aleppo is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s biggest victory so far in the nearly six-year-old civil war, but the fighting is by no means over, with large tracts of the country still under the control of insurgent and Islamist groups.

Wet and cold

Photographs of people evacuated from Aleppo showed large groups of people standing or crouching with their belongings or loading sacks onto trucks before heading off to further destinations.

Children, dressed in winter clothes, carried small backpacks or played with kittens.

In one image, one older man, in traditional Arab robes and headdress, sat holding a stick.

On Sunday, some of the buses sent to al-Foua and Kefraya to carry evacuees out were attacked and torched by armed men, who shouted “God is greatest” and brandished their weapons in front of the burning vehicles, according to a video posted online.

That incident threatened to derail the evacuations, the result of intense negotiations between Russia, Mr Assad’s main supporter, and Turkey, which backs some large rebel groups.

The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey will hold talks in Moscow on Tuesday aimed at giving fresh impetus for a solution in Aleppo.

“It is not a miracle meeting but will give all sides a chance to listen to each other,” an official from Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

The evacuations in Aleppo followed a series of sudden advances by the Syrian army and allied Shia militias under an intense bombardment that pulverised large sections of the city.

For four years, the city was split between a rebel-held eastern sector and the government-held western districts.

During the summer, the army and its allies managed to besiege the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.

‘Just want to escape’

Thousands have been waiting for the chance to leave Aleppo since the ceasefire and evacuation deal was agreed late last Tuesday, but have struggled to do so amid days of hold-ups.

The weather in Aleppo has been wet and very cold and there is little shelter and few services in the tiny rebel zone.

In the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district, organisers gave every family a number to allow them access to buses.

“Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape,” said Salah al-Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under the ceasefire deal to end fighting in the city, where violence first erupted in 2012, a year after the start of conflict in other parts of Syria.

They were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo.

Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed in Syria near the Turkish border to the north.

A Reuters reporter who visited recaptured districts of Aleppo in recent days said large swathes had been reduced to ruins, with rubble and other debris clogging the streets and sections of the famous Old City all but destroyed.

Assad is backed in the war by Russian air power and Shia militias, including Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement and Iraq’s Harakat al-Nujaba.

The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the US and Gulf monarchies.

East of Aleppo, several villages held by Islamic State have been captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of militias backed by the US that includes a strong Kurdish contingent, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The advance is part of a campaign backed by an international coalition to drive Islamic State, also known as Isis, from its Syrian capital of Raqqa.

Reuters