Deal reached that could restart Aleppo evacuation
BEIRUT (AP) — Rebel and government forces agreed Saturday to allow “humanitarian cases” to leave two besieged government-held Shiite villages in northwestern Syria, a step that would allow the resumption of civilian and rebel evacuations from eastern Aleppo which were suspended a day earlier, Hezbollah’s media arm and a monitoring group said.
The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation of some 4,000 people, including wounded, from the villages of Foua and Kfarya was expected to start Saturday. It later reported that 29 buses were heading toward the two villages to start the evacuation process, adding that insurgents in the area rejected allowing 4,000 people to leave and saying they will only allow 400 people to be evacuated.
The Syrian army said another 25 buses left later Saturday heading to the two villages.
It was not immediately clear whether the alleged evacuation limits set by the insurgents in the two villages would undermine evacuation efforts in Aleppo.
Hezbollah fighters have joined the Syrian war fighting along with President Bashar Assad’s forces. Opposition activists blamed the Lebanese group for blocking the main road south of Aleppo and blocking evacuations from rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city.
The Aleppo evacuation was suspended Friday after a report of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave by both sides of the conflict. Thousands were evacuated before the process was suspended.
An amateur video posted online by opposition activists Friday showed scores of men, women and children running away from a crossing point for fear of being shot at. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting of the events by The Associated Press.
The Syrian government has said that the village evacuations and the one in eastern Aleppo must be done simultaneously, but the rebels say there’s no connection.
Hezbollah’s Military Media said the new deal also includes the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near the border with Lebanon where tens of thousands of people are trapped under siege by government forces and the Lebanese group.
A Syrian state TV correspondent, speaking from Aleppo, said Saturday that the main condition for the Aleppo evacuation to resume is for residents of Foua and Kfarya to be allowed to leave.
In Moscow, The Russian foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday called his counterparts in Turkey and Iran to discuss the Syria crisis. The ministry’s read-out said all three discussed the Aleppo evacuation and humanitarian efforts and stressed “the importance of continuing to coordinate efforts of the international community to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.” They agreed to meet soon.
Separately, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu spoke by telephone Saturday with his Iranian and Syrian counterparts, as well as the chief of the Turkish intelligence service, to discuss the crisis in Aleppo, including “concrete steps to create conditions for a lasting cease-fire in Syria.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands of people including women, children, the sick and injured, remain trapped in eastern Aleppo waiting in freezing temperatures for the evacuation to resume. The ICRC said it is aware a new agreement could be reached soon and has called on all parties on the ground to “do their utmost to end this limbo.”
“We’re ready to resume facilitating the evacuation according to our humanitarian mandate. But we now expect all the parties on the ground to provide us with solid guarantees in order to keep the operation going,” said ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, who is currently in Aleppo. “They’re the ones who have to protect the people and provide safe passage. We cannot abandon these people.”
The cease-fire and evacuation from east Aleppo earlier this week marked the end of the rebels’ most important stronghold in the country’s civil war, now in its sixth year. The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal, in which civilians and fighters in the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.
In announcing the suspension, Syrian state TV said Friday that rebels were trying to smuggle out captives who had been seized in the enclave after ferocious battles with troops supporting Assad.
Reports differed on how many people remain in the Aleppo enclave, ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians, along with an estimated 6,000 fighters.
With the agreement of all parties, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC have already managed to evacuate around 10,000 people, many of whom are in a critical condition, the ICRC statement said. As tension between parties escalated yesterday, the evacuation was put on hold leaving thousands of people still in eastern Aleppo, it added.
There also were conflicting reports on the number of evacuees who left on Thursday and early Friday from east Aleppo. Syrian state TV put it at more than 9,000 while Russia, a key Assad ally, said over 9,500 people, including more than 4,500 rebels, were taken out.
In neighboring Turkey, several people crossed in from Syria but it was not immediately clear where they were coming. One woman said she was among the first batch of civilians who were able to leave east Aleppo.
Suad Hamso said she left Aleppo during the first ceasefire but couldn’t remember the exact day. Her daughters stayed put but managed to leave later, she said. She hopes to join one of her two children already living in Turkey.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.