Thousands trapped in Aleppo with no evacuations

Rebel fighters and civilians waiting to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo last Friday. Many spent the night in freezing temperatures and have not had a proper meal in days.
Rebel fighters and civilians waiting to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo last Friday. Many spent the night in freezing temperatures and have not had a proper meal in days.PHOTO: REUTERS

ALEPPO (Syria) • Thousands of trapped civilians and rebels were waiting desperately yesterday for evacuations to resume from the last opposition-held areas of Aleppo after the operation was suspended by the Syrian regime, even as some rebel and government officials said a deal had been brokered to continue with the process.

A rebel representative told Agence France-Presse that an agreement had been reached to allow more evacuations from 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's regime or its staunch allies Russia and Iran, which are under mounting international pressure to end what United States President Barack Obama denounced as the "horror" in Aleppo.

However, one Syrian government official told Reuters that the stalled evacuation of Aleppo would resume, alongside some evacuations from four besieged towns and villages.

"It was agreed to resume evacuations from east Aleppo alongside the evacuation of (medical) cases from Kefraya and al-Foua and some cases from Zabadani and Madaya," said the government official.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone: with the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.

US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, on the Syrian conflict and the atrocities that have befallen its civilians.

The Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province are besieged by insurgents. The towns of Madaya and Zabadani are blockaded by pro-government forces.

US President-elect Donald Trump said on Friday his administration would build "safe zones" to try to help civilians trapped in Syria's bloody conflict, an idea that President Obama said would be too hard to enforce.

"Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone: with the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these atrocities are on their hands," Mr Obama said on Friday.

Mr Obama called on Friday for impartial observers to monitor efforts to evacuate civilians from the devastated city and warned Mr Assad that he would not be able to "slaughter his way to legitimacy".

He also defended his decision to keep US troops out of Syria and avoid military intervention, although he acknowledged the protracted anguish has weighed on him. "Everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap," he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon earlier warned that Aleppo had become "a synonym for hell" and said the United Nations urged "all necessary measures" for a safe resumption of the evacuation.

Families spent the night in freezing temperatures in bombed out apartment blocks in Al-Amiriyah district of Aleppo, which was the departure point for evacuations before they were halted on Friday.

Many had not had a proper meal in days and were surviving on a few dates. A lot of people had burned all possessions they could not carry with them, determined not to allow them to be looted by government troops and militia who have recaptured almost the entire city.

The precise number of people still trapped in the last rebel-held pocket south-west of central Aleppo is unclear. 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 the rebel enclave, but the world body has since acknowledged there is uncertainty about the figures.

In New York, the 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's most powerful ally, said on Friday he was working with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Thousands trapped in Aleppo with no evacuations'. Print Edition | Subscribe