By Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington-ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new deal has been reached to complete the evacuation of rebel-held areas of Syria’s east Aleppo which ground to a halt on Friday over demands from pro-government forces that people also be moved out of two villages besieged by rebels.
Syrian rebel official al-Farouk Abu Bakr, speaking from Aleppo to news channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath on Saturday, said the deal comprised an evacuation from the two Shi’ite villages besieged by insurgents, the evacuation of wounded people from two towns besieged by pro-government forces near the Lebanese border, and the full evacuation of rebel-held east Aleppo.
A Syrian government official also said the stalled evacuation of Aleppo would resume, alongside some evacuations from the four besieged towns and villages.
“It was agreed to resume evacuations from east Aleppo in parallel with the evacuation of (medical) cases from Kefraya and al-Foua and some cases from Zabadani and Madaya,” said the government official, part of the evacuations negotiating team.
The Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province are besieged by insurgents. The towns of Madaya and Zabadani are blockaded by pro-government forces.
The operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the last opposition-held area of Aleppo was suspended on Friday, its second day, after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people also be brought out of al-Foua and Kefraya, and protesters blocked the road out of Aleppo.
There were recriminations on all sides and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “Aleppo is now a synonym for hell”.
Rebel sources accused pro-government forces they identified as Shi’ite militias of detaining and opening fire on a convoy carrying evacuees from east Aleppo on Friday.
Abu Bakr told al-Hadath the previous agreement was breached by pro-government militias who detained “hundreds” of people trying to leave, leading to some deaths.
A Syrian military source denied this, but said a convoy trying to leave Aleppo was returned back to the city.
“Now we are working on international guarantees to guarantee the safety of those who leave Aleppo so that such violations are not repeated,” Abu Bakr said.
The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on each side.
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year 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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said no buses or ambulances had yet entered al-Foua or Kefraya, but the operation was expected to begin soon. It said in the villages there are about 20,000 people, of whom roughly 4,500 are pro-government fighters.
Iran, one of Syria’s main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in any ceasefire deal, rebel and United Nations officials have said.
Though both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi’ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow’s efforts to broker the evacuation of east Aleppo.
Earlier this week, the government side demanded the evacuation of wounded people from al-Foua and Kefraya for the Aleppo deal to proceed.
Rebels initially accepted the demand, but on Friday it emerged that one group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, had not agreed to it.
The Syrian Observatory said 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, had left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances in the evacuations that began on Thursday morning.
Rebel officials say the numbers evacuated are much lower, with no fighters having left.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria said no one knows how many people are left in rebel-held Aleppo, and the evacuation could take days.
The U.N. says around 30,000 people remain in the crowded enclave of rebel-held Aleppo, of whom a number would be taken to Idlib province, which is mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, and the rest would go to government-held city districts.
Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian air strikes but it is unclear whether 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.
PUTIN SEEKS CEASEFIRE
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s most powerful ally, said on Friday 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.
A senior Syrian opposition leader, Riyad Hijab, said he was willing to attend the talks if the aim was to set up a transition government. Assad has ruled out stepping down as part of a political solution to the war.
Aleppo, a once-flourishing economic centre with renowned ancient sites, has been pulverized 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 has watched from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, pinned down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a ceasefire this week.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said on Friday his administration would build “safe zones” to try to help civilians trapped in Syria’s bloody conflict, an idea that President Barack Obama said would be too hard to enforce.
“Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone: with the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these atrocities are on their hands,” Obama said on Friday.
The Syrian White Helmets civil defence group and other rights organisations 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.
Even with victory for Assad in Aleppo, the war will be far from over. Insurgents retain their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist Islamic State group holds swathes of the east and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra this week.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Anna Willard; Editing by Dale Hudson)