Wednesday 21 August 2019

50,000 trapped in Aleppo as deal on hold

Demonstrators shout slogans during a demonstration to show solidarity with the citizens of Aleppo, Syria, after Friday prayers in front of the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey.
Demonstrators shout slogans during a demonstration to show solidarity with the citizens of Aleppo, Syria, after Friday prayers in front of the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey.

Josie Ensor in Beirut

The evacuation of remaining residents of rebel east Aleppo has been suspended again after both sides accused the other of breaching terms of the deal.

The main road out of east Aleppo was reportedly blocked by pro-regime fighters and 25 buses full of 400 people were prevented from leaving yesterday.

Iranian Shia militias fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces had demanded the evacuation of wounded residents of two Shia villages in Idlib province, besieged by rebels, which became a last-minute condition of the deal.

However, opposition fighters appeared to be blocking them from leaving Kefraya and Fua yesterday morning.

It was thought the action taken by the militias in east Aleppo was done in a bid to pressure rebels to allow the evacuation in Idlib.

"Regretfully, the operation was put on hold. We urge the parties to ensure it can be relaunched and proceed in the right conditions," said Robert Mardini, regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which is overseeing the evacuations.

Russia then declared the evacuation complete and that "all women and children" had left the ravaged city.

But aid agencies on the ground denied the claims, saying thousands of civilians were still waiting for buses out.

The phone and internet connection went down in east Aleppo shortly after Moscow's announcement, sparking fears for the safety of those remaining.

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The delicate operation to evacuate remaining civilians and fighters from east Aleppo began on Thursday afternoon after several setbacks.

So far it has been reported that around 8,500 people have left the city on green government buses, going to rebel-held territory in the west of the province, according to Britain-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

However, the United Nations estimated 50,000 remained trapped. The situation has become increasingly desperate for those trying to leave.

Pawel Krzysiek of the ICRC, who was on the ground in east Aleppo, said yesterday that thousands of civilians had been waiting out in near-freezing conditions for hours for buses which had not come.

"People are burning whatever they can to stay warm. It really is so cold. Not all of them have enough clothes and there is not much food or water for them," he said.

Photos sent by an activist waiting to leave the rebel-held enclave showed crowds of people in thick coats in a street lined with flattened buildings in the cold winter air. Children were "hungry and crying" and people were "exhausted", not knowing if buses would arrive to take them out.

"These people have been living in truly unthinkable conditions the last few weeks. It is difficult to describe in words, it's like a film. The worst kind of film," he said.

The Red Cross had managed to reach some 50 children trapped in an orphanage.

The army began an operation to recapture all of Aleppo in mid-November, and had overrun more than 90pc of the former rebel bastion in the east of the city before the evacuation began.

The truce, brokered by Russia and Turkey, was intended to end years of fighting in the city, giving the Syrian leader his biggest victory yet after more than five years of war.

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