ALEPPO • The Syrian government has suspended the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo, leaving thousands of people trapped and uncertain of their fate.
Russia, which helped to broker the evacuation deal with Turkey, said its operation was now "complete", with all women and children moved from the city.
But Ankara and a Syrian military source said the evacuation had been suspended yesterday and was not yet over.
"The evacuations are not over and many people still want to leave the area," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Amid the confusion, a convoy of evacuees that had already left the east when the operation was suspended was forced to return and re-enter rebel territory, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.
The delicate operation to bring the last civilians and rebels out of east Aleppo began on Thursday and had continued through the night, with thousands of people leaving in buses and ambulances.
But yesterday morning, it was abruptly suspended, with the government accusing rebels of violating the terms of the deal.
State television said: "The terrorist groups violated the agreement and tried to smuggle heavy weapons and hostages from east Aleppo."
The opposition accused the government of suspending the operation in a bid to secure the evacuation of residents from Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shi'ite-majority villages in Idlib province that have been under rebel siege since last year.
Yesterday morning, gunfire and explosions could be heard in Ramousseh, the government-held neighbourhood that evacuees had been passing through.
Initially, evacuees were leaving via a single convoy that travelled back and forth between Aleppo and the west of the province.
But overnight, the vehicles began returning individually to collect more evacuees as soon as they had dropped off their passengers.
The Observatory estimated that some 8,500 people had left before the operation was suspended, including around 3,000 rebel fighters.
Syrian state media reported a figure of around 8,000.
Dr Ahmad al-Dbis, who had been helping to coordinate the evacuation of the wounded, said at least 500 evacuees had wounds or illnesses requiring medical attention.
More than 310,000 people have been killed since the conflict began with anti-government protests in 2011, and over half the population has been displaced, with millions becoming refugees.
Diplomatic efforts - including several rounds of peace talks in Geneva - failed to make headway in resolving the conflict, which saw a turning point last year, when Russia launched an air war in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was "actively negotiating" with rebels through Turkish mediators.
"The next step (after Aleppo) will be to reach agreement on a complete ceasefire across all of Syria," he said on an official visit to Japan.
He added that the parties were proposing fresh peace talks, possibly in Kazakhstan.
The evacuation - before it was forced to halt - was emotional for departing residents who were desperate for relief after months of bombardment and siege, but tearful at the prospect of potentially permanent exile.
In the dust on the window of one of the buses departing on Thursday, someone had traced: "One day we will return."