Saturday 21 September 2019

UN monitors approved as Aleppo evacuations continue

Government evacuation buses in Idlib province are set ablaze (SANA/ AP)
Government evacuation buses in Idlib province are set ablaze (SANA/ AP)

The UN Security Council has approved the deployment of UN monitors to Aleppo as the evacuation of fighters and civilians from the last remaining opposition stronghold in the northern city resumed after days of delays.

France said the monitors were needed to prevent "mass atrocities" from being committed by Syrian government forces, especially militias.

However, thousands of people have already been evacuated and the operation will likely be over before the observers arrive.

Another evacuation is under way in two rebel-besieged Shia villages, where the sick and wounded were being allowed out until gunmen torched several buses being used for the operation on Sunday. That evacuation has since resumed.

The resolution also adopted calls for the United Nations and other institutions to monitor evacuations from eastern Aleppo and demands that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should urgently consult Syria and other parties on security and arrangements for the immediate deployment of the monitors.

France and Russia, who submitted rival draft resolutions, announced the agreement on a text after more than three hours of closed-door consultations on Sunday.

The resolution also demands that all parties allow unconditional and immediate access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid and medical care, and "respect and protect all civilians across Aleppo and throughout Syria".

The evacuation of Aleppo began last week after Turkey and Russia brokered a ceasefire as government forces were closing in on the rebels' last redoubt in the country's largest city, but has been repeatedly delayed.

The evacuation of more than 2,000 sick and wounded from the besieged Shia villages of Foua and Kfarya was tacked onto the deal at the last minute.

The UK -based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV said 10 buses left with civilians on Monday.

There are also plans to evacuate hundreds of people from two Madaya and Zabadani, two besieged, rebel-held villages near the Lebanese border. The Observatory and Mayadeen said 15 buses had entered the two villages on Monday.

Rebel-held eastern Aleppo has been besieged for months, with several previous ceasefires breaking down and virtually no humanitarian aid reaching its tens of thousands of residents.

One of those who left Aleppo on Monday was Mohammed Abu Jaafar, who described a miserable three-mile trip that took more than two hours in an overcrowded state bus.

He said they passed three checkpoints, one manned by Russian troops, another by plainclothes Syrian intelligence agents and the third by Syrian troops.

Inside the bus, men, women and children were hungry and cold as they waited for hours in freezing temperatures, he said.

"Children were screaming, and some people fainted," he said, adding that there was no baby formula or nappies.

Among those evacuated Monday was seven-year-old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatemah, who tweeted the horrors of living through the government's assault on eastern Aleppo, which destroyed much of the city. Their account had some 326,000 followers.

Speaking to the activist-run Qasioun News Agency in the Aleppo countryside, Fatemah said she was glad to have finally reached safety but expressed regret that she was forced out of her home city and said she did not want to become a refugee.

"I left my soul there," she said.

The Observatory and Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later said that since midnight on Sunday, some 4,500 people have been evacuated from eastern Aleppo.

Reports differed on how many people remain in eastern Aleppo, but estimates converge on around 15,000 civilians and 6,000 fighters.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said a total of 131 wounded people - including 46 children - were brought to Turkey for treatment since the evacuations began last week. The agency said five of them have since died.

The departure from the Shia villages had stalled on Sunday after militants burned six empty buses assigned to take the villagers out. Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's UN ambassador, told reporters in New York the bus drivers were taken hostage and three were killed.

If the evacuation from Aleppo is completed later on Monday, it will close another chapter in Syria's civil war, now in its sixth year, with the government in control of Syria's five largest cities and its Mediterranean coastline.

The rebels captured eastern Aleppo in July 2012 and held on to it despite a ferocious assault in recent months by Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and a host of Shia militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan.

Capturing the entire city would be president Bashar Assad's biggest victory since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

The Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said he expected the Aleppo evacuations to be completed later on Monday.


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