Thousands in desperate wait for evacuation from Aleppo

ALEPPO: Trapped Syrian civilians and rebels waited desperately on Saturday for evacuations to resume from an opposition-held enclave in Aleppo as the Red Cross pleaded for a deal to “save thousands of lives”. A rebel representative said an agreement had been reached to allow more people to leave the city, which has been ravaged by some of the worst violence of the nearly six-year war that has killed more than 310,000 people. But there was no confirmation from President Bashar al Assad or its allies Russia and Iran.
Families spent the night in freezing temperatures in bombed out apartment blocks in Al-Amiriyah district, the departure point for evacuations before they were halted on Friday.
Abu Omar said that after waiting outside in the cold for nine hours the previous day, he had returned only to be told by rebels the buses were not coming.
“I’m tired of having to carry all our things and come back every day for nothing,” he said.
“There’s no more food or drinking water, and the situation is getting worse by the day,” he said, adding that his four children were sick because of the cold.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed for safe passage for the thousands of people including women, children, sick and injured who waited through the night “in constant fear and anxiety”.
“People have suffered a lot. Please come to an agreement and help save thousands of lives,” said ICRC Syria delegation head Marianne Gasser.
The government blamed the rebels for the suspension of the evacuation operation which had begun on Thursday, saying they had tried to smuggle out heavy weapons and hostages.
The opposition accused the government of halting the operation in a bid to secure the evacuation of residents from Fuaa and Kafraya, two villages under rebel siege in northwestern Syria.
In return, the rebels want the evacuation of the towns of Madaya and Zabadani in Damascus province which are besieged.
Al Farook Abu Bakr, a representative of the group Ahrar al Sham, said a deal had been reached for the evacuations to resume.
“There will be evacuations from Fuaa and Kafraya, as well as Madaya and Zabadani, and all the residents of Aleppo and the fighters will leave,” he said.
But there was no announcement of an agreement from the government.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated that as of Thursday there were around 40,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 5,000 opposition fighters in Aleppo’s rebel enclave.
Before evacuations were suspended around 8,500 people, including some 3,000 fighters, left for rebel-held territory elsewhere in the north, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
“The evacuations are expected to resume on Saturday in Aleppo, in synchronisation with the evacuation from Fuaa and Kafraya of around 4,000 people — the wounded and their families, as well as civilians and orphans,” Observatory Director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Tens of thousands of civilians had already fled opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo after the regime began its latest assault in mid-November.
The Russian defence ministry said after evacuations were suspended that only hardline rebels remained.
“The operation has also opened a new window for the possibility of establishing a halt to hostilities not only in Aleppo province but in other areas of Syria,” the ministry said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had spoken more than a dozen times with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Friday.
Cavusoglu and Lavrov also took part in a three-way call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, Moscow said.
In New York, the UN Security Council could vote as early as this weekend on a French-drafted proposal to allow international observers in Aleppo and ensure urgent aid deliveries. — AFP