14 Dec 2016

Confusion over Aleppo rebel evacuation

10:04 pm on 14 December 2016

The four-year battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo is over but the fate of those trapped there remains unclear.

A bus which will be used to evacuate civilians leaving from rebel-held areas of Aleppo is seen on 13 December, 2016.

One of the buses expected to be used to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians waits in Aleppo. Photo: AFP

The planned evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from the eastern part of the city has been delayed. Government buses have been brought in but none have left yet, reports say.

President Bashar al-Assad's government is said to be demanding the simultaneous evacuation of its own injured fighters and civilians from nearby towns that are encircled by opposition forces.

A ceasefire between government troops and the rebels was declared in Aleppo on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT).

Two rebel officials told Reuters the ceasefire deal was holding, despite the evacuation delay.

East Aleppo has been held by the rebels since 2012. But the rebels had been squeezed into ever smaller areas of the city in recent months by a major government offensive, backed by Russian air power.

Listen to Morning Report's interview with Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations head Dr Zaidoun al-Zoabi on attacks on civilians in Aleppo:

Under the deal, brokered by Turkey and Russia, civilians and rebels from the last part of the city to fall are to be evacuated to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

Evacuations had been due to start at 5am the next day (4pm Wednesday NZT), reports said, but several hours later the fleet of government buses had not moved.

The UN says it is "not involved" in the evacuation plans but "stands ready to facilitate the voluntary and safe evacuation of injured, sick and vulnerable civilians from the besieged part of the city".

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called for immediate access to oversee operations.

Syrians leave a rebel-held area of Aleppo towards the government-held side on 13 December, 2016.

Syrians leave a rebel-held area of Aleppo towards the government-held side. Photo: AFP

News of the deal came as the UN reported summary killings by pro-government forces.

It said it had reliable evidence that in four areas 82 civilians were killed, adding that many more may have died.

The UN and the US said the Syrian government as well as Russia and Iran - another key ally of Mr Assad - were accountable for any atrocities committed in the city. Syria's government and Russia said the allegations were untrue.

In an interview with Russian media, Mr Assad accused the West of double standards.

He said officials and media expressed concern about civilians when the government was advancing in Aleppo, but did not care when Islamist rebels attacked civilians and heritage in Palmyra.

Fighting 'over'

Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin earlier told an emergency session of the UN Security Council: "According to the latest information that we received in the last hour, military actions in eastern Aleppo are over."

He said the deal was reached to allow the rebels to leave.

"The civilians, they can stay, they can go to safe places, they can take advantage of the humanitarian arrangements that are on the ground. Nobody is going to harm the civilians," Mr Churkin said.

But the rebels, while confirming the deal, stressed that civilians would also be included in the exodus.

Syria's state media said on Tuesday the rebels would be evacuated through the Ramouseh crossing in the south, and then to rebel-held areas in Idlib province.

Syrian civilians leave towards safer rebel-held areas in Aleppo during an operation by Syrian government forces to retake the embattled city.

Civilians leave towards safer rebel-held areas during an earlier period of fighting in Aleppo. Photo: AFP

Tens of thousands in under-fire neighbourhoods

Before the end to hostilities was announced, the rebels had retreated into just a handful of neighbourhoods.

It is hard to know exactly how many people are in the besieged areas, although UN envoy Staffan de Mistura put the figure at about 50,000.

He said there were approximately 1500 rebel fighters, about 30 percent of whom were from the jihadist group formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.

Other local sources say there could be as many as 100,000 people, many of them arriving from areas recently taken by the government.

Mr Assad's victory is a huge blow to the armed opposition, and a major victory for the Russians, the Iranians, Lebanon's Hezbollah and some Iraqi Shia militias.

The rebels still control quite large areas of Syria, as do the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and the country's devastating civil war continues.

For much of the past four years, Aleppo has been divided roughly in two, with the government controlling the western half and rebels the east.

Syrian troops finally broke the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes, reinstating a siege on the east in early September and launching an all-out assault weeks later.

- BBC / Reuters / RNZ

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