International

Red Cross says hopes to resume Aleppo evacuation on Sunday

BEIRUT: Thousands of people congregated in a square in Syria’s east Aleppo, waiting for buses to arrive and take them away from rebel-held areas as part of an evacuation that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hopes will resume on Sunday.

Many spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures while pro-government and opposition forces as well as their international backers worked on a deal to allow people to be escorted out.

The Aleppo evacuation ground to a halt on Friday after a disagreement between rebels and Syrian government forces, who were demanding that people also be allowed to leave two Shi’ite villages besieged by insurgents.

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Negotiations about how the evacuations would take place and how many people would leave were continuing on Sunday and there were no signs the evacuations had begun. There were reports of buses being held up outside the two villages and waiting near the square.

Several residents say the estimated 15,000 gathering in the main square in Aleppo’s Sukari district are most of the civilians left in the last rebel bastion, mainly families of fighters and other civilians and a few combatants. Every family has been given a number by organizers to allow them on buses when they arrive.

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

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Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday from the last rebel bastion in Aleppo, the first to leave under a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

An ICRC spokeswoman said it hoped the evacuations would restart on Sunday morning.

But a resident inside east Aleppo went to the designated departure place at 05:00 am on Sunday. He said that there were still no aid workers from the ICRC, Syrian Arab Red Crescent, nor any ambulances or buses to take people out.

The World Health Organization’s representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said a team was on its way to Ramousah, about 2 km from Sukari, but had not arrived yet.

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State television footage it said was taken in Ramousah showed buses parked next to a highway intersection and a van with a Syrian Arab Red Crescent flag. Several large white cars marked with red crescent and red cross symbols stood nearby.

Rebels and a government official have that the new deal to evacuate east Aleppo would also involve people leaving the two besieged Shi’ite villages in Idlib province, al-Foua and Kefraya and two other besieged towns, Madaya and Zabadani, near the Lebanese border.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the rebel group formerly known as the Nusra Front was preventing evacuation buses from entering al-Foua and Kefraya. It said the buses had been held up for over five hours.

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A senior Syrian rebel official from the powerful Ahrar al Sham group involved in the talks on Saturday said the deal was being held up by Iran and its allied Shi’ite militias which were insisting people be allowed to leave the two villages before allowing the Aleppo evacuation to proceed.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the insurgents out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.

UNITED NATIONS VOTE

The chaos surrounding the evacuation reflects the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.

The United Nations Security Council is due to vote Sunday on a French-drafted resolution aimed at ensuring that U.N. officials can monitor evacuations from Aleppo and the protection of civilians who remain.

The draft text, seen by Reuters on Saturday, also “emphasizes that the evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice, and protection must be provided to all civilians who choose or who have been forced to be evacuated and those who opt to remain in their homes.”

A vote has been scheduled for Sunday morning, diplomats said.

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It was not immediately clear how Russia would vote. Before the draft was circulated to the council, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Friday: “If it is a sensible initiative and we see it on paper, why not entertain this initiative?”

Russia, an ally of Damascus that has provided military backing to Assad’s troops, has vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011. China joined Moscow in vetoing five resolutions.

A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.

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