Sunday 18 August 2019

Aleppo evacuation halted by fierce fighting

US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power
US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power

Josie Ensor

Plans to evacuate the last remaining rebels and civilians from their devastated enclave in eastern Aleppo have stalled after more fighting put a negotiated truce in peril.

A ceasefire brokered by Russia, Syria president Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally, and Turkey was intended to end years of fighting in the city.

But shelling and gunfire erupted yesterday morning and the fragile truce appeared to collapse.

The problem seemed to lie with parties not included in the talks, which expressed their objections to some of the terms of the deal.

Iranian Shia militias, fighting on the ground in support of the Syrian regime, tried to apply new conditions on the truce. They demanded a simultaneous evacuation of wounded people from the loyalist Shia villages of Kefraya and Fua in Idlib province, north-western Syria, which are besieged by rebel fighters.

According to Turkish ­media reports, as many as 1,000 civilians fleeing eastern ­Aleppo had been stopped at an ­Iranian-manned checkpoint outside the city and prevented from leaving despite having ­already passed through a ­Russian checkpoint.

The rebels in Idlib responded by shelling the two villages.


Both sides traded blame for the renewed hostilities. Turkey and the rebels it supports said pro-government forces began shelling them without provocation, while Russia accused the opposition of firing on an evacuation point.

The attacks threatened plans to evacuate thousands of starved and besieged civilians and rebels out of the tiny pocket that they still hold.

Before the fighting resumed, hundreds of Aleppo residents had gathered in the streets from the early hours, some clutching bags of belongings, in anticipation.

Two dozen green government buses were queued up several miles away at a designated spot at dawn, but after five hours of waiting and no evacuees they returned to their depots.

Residents still trapped in the 2.5-square-km enclave sent increasingly desperate messages after the deal appeared to fall apart.

"For those who still have some humanity left please save us," Mohammed Abu Jaafar, the head of east Aleppo's forensic authority, wrote in a message. "The international community has mocked us, Russia has mocked us, Iran has mocked us."

When the bombs began ­dropping once again, they had nowhere to run.

"The injured and the dead are lying on the ground, there are no cars or anything to help rescue them. We beg you, we beg you, we beg you."

The breakdown of the ceasefire showed what little control Moscow has over its allied forces on the ground.

While Russia's involvement in the Syrian war is militarily strategic, it has much more of a sectarian purpose for the regime's regional allies.

President Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the situation yesterday and Russian officials were talking to Iranian officials to try to get the ceasefire back on track.

US ambassador to the ­United Nations Samantha Power ­confronted Mr Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies with a fierce address during a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday evening.

"Your barrel bombs and mortars and air strikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever tightening noose," Mrs Power said.

"It is your noose," she went on. "It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame?"

Those left in eastern Aleppo said they feared a massacre would follow if renewed negotiations failed.

"Pounding the east of Aleppo with dozens of artillery bombs for one hour, until now we have counted more than 100 bombs," activist Zouhir al-Shimale posted on Twitter.

"Massacres are about to be happening. Constant attacks [on] families still trapped in the east cause Iranian forces NOT letting them leaving (sic)."

Fatemah al-Abed, the mother of seven-year-old Bana, who has been documenting her experience of the war on social media, yesterday posted this short message: "Please help us now. No more time left. Thank you."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the emergency meeting that he had received "credible reports" of civilians being killed by pro-government forces as they swept into the last rebel areas in Aleppo.

The head of the UN's human rights office, Rupert Colville, had previously said that six different sources had confirmed 82 non-combatants were shot in four different neighbourhoods overnight on Monday.

A building with more than 100 children trapped inside was also allegedly attacked by pro-regime forces. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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