New evacuation deal reached for Aleppo
ALEPPO / BEIRUT
REUTERS photoRebels and pro-government forces have reached a deal to resume evacuations from east Aleppo as long as people are allowed to leave two Shiite villages besieged by insurgents and two other towns, Syrian state television reported on Dec. 18.
Buses and Red Crescent vehicles arrived at the entrance to the two villages of al-Foua and Kefraya shortly after the deal was announced, according to al-Manar television, affiliated to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus.
Buses also began to arrive in eastern Aleppo, state media said, showing live footage.
The Aleppo evacuation ground to a halt on Dec. 16 after a disagreement between rebels and the coalition of forces fighting for the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who wanted people to be allowed to leave the two villages and two towns near the Lebanese border.
Both sides -- as well as their international backers -- have been negotiating the deal as over 15,000 people gathered in a square in east Aleppo to wait for buses to arrive and take them to rebel held areas outside the city. Many had spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures.
According to Syria’s al-Ikhbariya TV news, about 1,200 civilians would initially be evacuated from east Aleppo and a similar number from the two villages.
A document cited by al-Manar television and passed to Reuters by rebels and activists said the entire deal would see 2,500 citizens leave al-Foua and Kefraya in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo in two corresponding batches.
Following this, another 1,500 will leave al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of 1,500 from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani, which are besieged by pro-Syrian government forces.
Once evacuees from the villages have safely arrived in government areas, Aleppo fighters and more of their family members will be allowed to leave in return for subsequent batches of people departing al-Foua and Kefraya, al-Ikhbariya TV reported.
Several residents said those in the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district represent most of the civilians left in the last rebel bastion, including rebels, their families and other civilians who wish to leave. Every family has been given a number by organizers to allow them on buses when they arrive.
“Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated they just want to escape,” said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.
Thousands of people were evacuated on Dec. 15, the first to leave under a cease-fire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.
The World Health Organization’s representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said a team was on its way to Ramousah, about 2 kilometers from Sukari.
State television footage it said was taken in Ramousah, south-west Aleppo, showed buses parked next to a highway intersection and a van with a Syrian Arab Red Crescent flag. Several large white cars marked with red crescent and red cross symbols stood nearby.
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the insurgents out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.
The chaos surrounding the evacuation reflects the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.
The United Nations Security Council was due to vote on Dec. 18 on a French-drafted resolution aimed at ensuring that U.N. officials can monitor the evacuations from Aleppo and the protection of civilians who remain.
Those who were evacuated on Dec. 16 were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo.
Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.
The draft U.N. text, seen by Reuters on Dec. 17, also “emphasizes that the evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice, and protection must be provided to all civilians who choose or who have been forced to be evacuated and those who opt to remain in their homes.”
It was not immediately clear how Russia would vote in the U.N. Security Council. Before the draft was circulated to the council, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Dec. 16: “If it is a sensible initiative and we see it on paper, why not entertain this initiative?”
Russia, an ally of Damascus that has provided military backing to Assad’s troops, has vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011. China joined Moscow in vetoing five resolutions.
A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.