Painful exit from Aleppo
ALEPPO / ANKARA
AA photoThe evacuation of wounded civilians and rebels from the besieged parts of Aleppo started on Dec. 14, amid diplomatic efforts by Turkey and Russia and concerns over the implementation of a cease-fire that would end years of fighting in the city.
A convoy of ambulances and buses, which was led by vehicles from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, followed by ambulances and then green government buses, left rebel territory in Aleppo on Dec. 14.
Evacuees spent several hours gathering at a staging area with assistance from the ICRC before the vehicles left at around 2:30 p.m. (12.30 p.m. GMT), an AFP correspondent in the city said.
Ingy Sedky, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Syria, said the first convoy included 13 ambulances and 20 buses carrying civilians.
“They have crossed the front line and are on their way to rural parts of western Aleppo” province, including the opposition-controlled town of Khan al-Aassal, she told AFP.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said there were 19 ambulances and 21 buses taking part in the evacuation.
Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative in Syria, told Reuters from the evacuation area in the Ramousah district: “We saw women and small children on the buses and some men. They were not full. Everything went very smoothly. It was very calm.”
Syrian state television reported that at least 4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated under the plan.
The ICRC said in a tweet in the first minutes of the evacuation that the first batch of buses was carrying around 200 wounded people.
An AFP correspondent at the staging area said people were piling onto the buses, filling seats and even sitting on the floor, with some worried that there would not be another chance to evacuate.
Many were in tears and some hesitated to board the buses, afraid they would end up in the hands of regime forces.
At least one killed during evacuation
The start of the evacuation came after a convoy carrying civilians was hit by pro-regime fire, during which at least one civilian was killed and another four were injured.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency gave the death toll of the attack by Iranian-backed Shiite militias at four, while Reuters said only one person was killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The evacuees are free to choose between going to either to Idlib or Turkey.
Turkish Red Crescent head Kerem Kınık, who was in the southern province of Hatay and Syria’s Idlib to inspect the preparations, said they expected that most of the evacuees would opt for Idlib.
The fragile cease-fire and evacuation deal was supposed to begin on the morning of Dec. 14, after Turkey and Russia agreed late Dec. 13, but collapsed briefly with a return to violence sending panicked civilians who had gathered to leave scrambling to find safety.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed during a phone conversation in the afternoon of Dec. 14 that the cease-fire agreement should be put into effect completely and that violations to the agreement should be prevented.
They also confirmed the decision to make joint efforts to start the evacuation of the civilians and the opposition from Aleppo as soon as possible.
Turkish, Iranian FMs talk on phone four times
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, spoke over the phone four times in a bid to secure the implementation of the cease-fire deal, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hüseyin Müftüoğlu said Dec. 15.
Addressing allegations that Iran had imposed new conditions on the agreement, including the evacuation of some civilians from two Shiite-majority villages in northwestern Syria under rebel siege, Müftüoğlu simply said, “It would not be right to impose additional conditions on the Aleppo deal.”
He added that efforts for the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo and the opening of a humanitarian corridor between “should be kept separate, if Iran has some demands,” stressing that Turkey’s priority was the safe evacuation of civilians from Aleppo.
One day prior, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey, Iran and Russia would meet at a summit of foreign ministers in Moscow on Dec. 27 to discuss efforts to secure a cease-fire in Syria.
“The best solution [on Syria] is always a political one. We are making efforts to provide a cease-fire across the entire country and at the same time to initiate a resumption of negotiations. Our efforts will continue in this direction,” Çavuşoğlu told private broadcaster TGRT late on Dec. 14.
“In this framework, we’ll be conducting a trilateral Turkey-Iran-Russia meeting in Moscow on Dec. 27,” he added.
‘Swift, un-bureaucratic’ evacuation, Russia claims
U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said Dec. 15 that Russia told a United Nations humanitarian task force meeting on Dec. 15 that the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo would be quick and peaceful.
Russia confirmed at the meeting “that this is a swift, un-bureaucratic, non-intrusive evacuation and no harm will meet those who are evacuated,” Egeland told reporters in Geneva.
“It’s a three-pronged evacuation – of wounded and sick, of vulnerable civilians, and evacuation of fighters,” he said. “All in all it surely must be well over 1,000, it could be in the thousands.”
The U.N. was not involved in mediating the evacuation deal but was ready to monitor and accompany evacuees all the way to their destination, Egeland said.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Defense Ministry said Syrian authorities had guaranteed the safety of the rebels leaving the city.
Meanwhile, the United States refused to say its diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria had failed on Dec. 14, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his counterparts in Russia, Turkey and Qatar, and the U.N. special envoy for the conflict, Staffan de Mistura.
“In all of these conversations, the secretary has stressed the need to continue to try to stop the bloodshed and the violence through a meaningful cease-fire,” said Kerry’s spokesman, John Kirby.