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Deadly clashes in Aleppo put evacuation deal on hold

Deadly clashes in Aleppo put evacuation deal on hold

ALEPPO: Shelling and air strikes sent terrified residents running through the streets of Aleppo on Wednesday as a deal to evacuate rebel districts of the city was in danger of falling apart.

The agreement reached on Tuesday was meant to pave the way for thousands of civilians and rebel fighters to evacuate Syria’s second city, scene of some of the worst fighting in more than five years of war.

But cold and hungry civilians who had gathered before dawn to evacuate were instead plunged back into a familiar nightmare.

“Bombing is ongoing, no one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified,” activist Mohammad al-Khatib said from inside the city. “The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies.”

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani phoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al Assad on Wednesday to congratulate him on the impending defeat of rebel forces.

“The victory in Aleppo... constitutes a great victory for the Syrian people against terrorists and those who support them,” Rouhani told Assad.

The Syrian leader reportedly replied that Iran had stood “on the side of the Syrian people and government in its most difficult moments, and we will never forget it”.

Iran did not commit its regular army to the Syrian conflict, but its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards played a crucial coordinating role.

Hopes dashed

The evacuation, agreed under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, had been due to begin at 5:00am but was delayed, with buses parked outside rebel-held areas left waiting.

Following several hours of quiet, fighting then erupted anew in the ravaged city, with Syria’s regime, the rebels and their foreign allies trading accusations of blame.

As booms of air strikes and artillery fire rang out, a correspondent in rebel areas saw panicked civilians running in the streets to find shelter, some hiding in the doorframes of damaged buildings.

Erdogan to call Putin

A correspondent saw several wounded civilians, as well as a regime tank turning its cannon towards opposition-held districts and opening fire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported “very intense clashes on every front line” and said at least two people had been killed in rebel areas. State television said rebel rocket fire on government-controlled areas had also resumed, killing at least seven people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin later in bid to rescue the deal. The two leaders agreed on the need for a ceasefire in Aleppo.

Putin, a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad, said Damascus resumed its assault on Aleppo after rebels violated the ceasefire.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expected rebel resistance in the city to end in the next “two to three days”.

Rebels and a source close to the regime said that the evacuation had been suspended after objections from the Syrian government.

The source said Damascus objected to the number of people leaving, claiming rebels had sought to raise it from 2,000 to 10,000.

But Yasser al-Youssef, a political official from the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group, said the regime and its ally Iran were trying to add “new conditions” to the agreement.

“They want to link this deal to other issues, including the areas of Fuaa and Kafraya,” he added, referring to two government-held Shia-majority villages in north-western Syria that are under rebel siege.

Call for observers

Turkey too accused Assad’s regime and its supporters of blocking the deal.

French President Francois Hollande joined Washington’s call for international observers to be sent in to oversee the evacuation.

Hollande said those trapped by the fighting should “be evacuated in a dignified and safe manner, under the supervision of international observers and in the presence of humanitarian organisations.”

Before the fighting resumed, crowds of civilians could be seen gathered in the streets of rebel areas from the early hours, some clutching bags of belongings, to await evacuation. Many were hungry, after weeks without regular meals because of dwindling food supplies caused by the army’s siege.

The evacuation deal was announced a month into an army operation that has seen the government take more than 90 per cent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.

Published in Dawn December 15th, 2016

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