By Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington
ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT, Dec 17 – A new deal is being negotiated to complete the evacuation of rebel-held areas of Syria’s east Aleppo which ground to a halt on Friday after demands from pro-government forces that people also be moved out of two villages besieged by insurgents.
A Syrian rebel official and a government official said early on Saturday the evacuation of Aleppo would resume and the two Shi’ite villages would be evacuated, as well as the wounded from two towns near the Lebanese border and east Aleppo.
But sources said negotiations were still going on to finalise how the evacuations would take place and how many people would leave. By Saturday afternoon there was no sign it was being implemented, with only an hour to go before sunset.
A point of contention in talks this week has been the number of people who will be allowed to leave the Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which are besieged by insurgents.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said thousands of cold, scared and injured people were still in east Aleppo waiting to leave. It said it had received some indications that a deal would be reached soon.
“It was agreed to resume evacuations from east Aleppo in parallel with the evacuation of (medical) cases from Kefraya and al-Foua and some cases from Zabadani and Madaya,” said the government official, part of the evacuations negotiating team.
The towns of Madaya and Zabadani are blockaded by pro-government forces.
The operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the last opposition-held area of Aleppo was suspended on Friday, its second day, after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people also be brought out of al-Foua and Kefraya, and protesters blocked the evacuation road out of Aleppo.
There were recriminations on all sides and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “Aleppo is now a synonym for hell”.
The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on each side.
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November after months of intense air strikes deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.
BEATEN AND ROBBED
Numerous activists, rebels and east Aleppo residents shared reports and videos of people fleeing the sound of shooting, being detained and returning home badly beaten and robbed of their possessions near a checkpoint as they tried to leave the city on Friday.
Syrian rebel official al-Farouk Abu Bakr, speaking from Aleppo to news channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath on Saturday, said the previous evacuation deal was breached by pro-government militias who detained “hundreds” of people trying to leave, leading to some deaths.
A Syrian military source denied this, but said a convoy trying to leave Aleppo was returned back to the city.
“Now we are working on international guarantees to guarantee the safety of those who leave Aleppo so that such violations are not repeated,” Abu Bakr said.
An activist and teacher inside rebel-held Aleppo, Wissam Zarqa, told journalists via a messaging app that he spent Friday in the cold with his family hoping to leave. He said he did not feel safe trying to flee Aleppo after hearing about the attack on the convoy.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the ICRC said guarantees were needed to protect people trying to leave.
“We’re ready to resume facilitating the evacuation according to our humanitarian mandate. But we now expect all the parties on the ground to provide us with solid guarantees in order to keep the operation going,” said Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC in Syria.
“They’re the ones who have to protect the people and provide safe passage.”
NO BUSES YET
A resident in Aleppo told Reuters that by late afternoon nobody had left the rebel-held enclave and no buses had entered. He heard gunfire near where people were supposed to wait for buses.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said no buses or ambulances had entered al-Foua or Kefraya. It said around 20,000 people, of whom roughly 4,500 are pro-government fighters, were in the villages.
A military news outlet run by Damascus’s ally Hezbollah said evacuation buses were heading to the two villages.
Iran, one of Syria’s main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in any ceasefire deal, rebel and United Nations officials have said.
Though both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi’ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow’s efforts to broker the evacuation of east Aleppo.
The Observatory said 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances in the evacuations that began on Thursday morning.
Rebel officials say the numbers evacuated are much lower, with no fighters having left.
The U.N. says around 30,000 people remain in rebel-held Aleppo, of whom a number would be taken to Idlib province, which is mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, and the rest would go to government-held city districts.
Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian air strikes but it is unclear whether the government will push for a ground assault or simply seek to contain rebels there for now.
Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.
The Observatory said war planes bombed insurgent-controlled areas west of Aleppo overnight and north of Aleppo on Saturday.
Syrian state media reported on Saturday that a number of fighters south of Damascus had surrendered their weapons to the state in the towns of Zakiya and al-Deirkheyba as part of local truces.
Through a series of so-called “settlement” agreements and army offensives, the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, has been steadily suppressing armed opposition to its rule in the capital city’s suburbs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s most powerful ally, said on Friday he was working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire.
A senior Syrian opposition leader, Riyad Hijab, said he was willing to attend the talks if the aim was to set up a transition government. Assad has ruled out stepping down as part of a political solution to the war.
Aleppo, a once-flourishing economic centre with renowned ancient sites, has been pulverised during the war that has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Daesh The United States has watched from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, pinned down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a ceasefire this week.
Even with victory for Assad in Aleppo, the war will be far from over. Insurgents retain their rural stronghold of Idlib province as well as other territory in western, northern and southern Syria, and the jihadist Daesh group holds swathes of the east and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra this week.