There are renewed fears for thousands of people still believed to be trapped in the remaining rebel enclave in Aleppo, after evacuation convoys out of the Syrian city were yesterday suspended..
It is not clear how long the suspension will last or whether it will delay the ceasefire deal under which the tens of thousands of residents and rebel fighters were being evacuated.
All sides have accused each other of breaching the conditions of the ceasefire deal.
The Syrian Observatory said some 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances when the evacuation began.
But aid agencies involved in the Aleppo evacuation were then told to leave the area without explanation, after the operation was aborted, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
“Aleppo is now a synonym for hell,” United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki moon said.
“I very much regret that we had to stop this operation.”
When the evacuation was suspended, civilians still trapped in the besieged district took to social media to plead for help.
‘The world is united in horror’: Obama
In his last media briefing of the year US President Barack Obama said the world should not be fooled by what he called the terrible events unfolding in Aleppo and the Syrian Government’s attempts to obfuscate the truth about them.
“It has been one of the hardest issues that I’ve faced as President,” Mr Obama said.
“The world as we speak is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo.”
The Syrian Government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed, saying rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave.
Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Syria, told a news briefing: “I assume the message [to abort the operation] came from the Russians who are monitoring the area.”
Her team of nine staff in east Aleppo had no contact with Syrian authorities at the Ramouseh transit site.
By 7am local time, 194 evacuated patients had arrived in eight “overwhelmed” hospitals in government-held western Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey, according to the latest WHO figures.
A military news service run by Lebanon’s pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said the evacuations were halted partly due to a failure to evacuate injured people from two Shiite villages besieged by rebels in Idlib.
It also cited previous reasons given for the suspension of the evacuation: that rebels had sought to take prisoners with them and had bombarded a road due to be used by the buses set to conduct the evacuation from the two villages, al-Foua and Kefraya.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group, is fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Russia pursues new peace initiative
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a major new Syria peace initiative, saying he and his Turkish counterpart were working to set up peace talks between Damascus and the opposition in Kazakhstan.
Earlier on Friday, evacuations of rebel fighters and civilians, including injured from the last opposition-held areas of Aleppo, had gathered pace under a ceasefire that would see the Government retake the city, monitors and a rebel official said.
Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said aid workers had hoped to keep the momentum going because the evacuations could take several days.
“So far we managed to carry out four rounds of evacuations — 3,000 people, around 40 wounded,” he said.
About 6,000 people had left rebel-held Aleppo in several convoys of buses since Thursday (local time) when the evacuations began, Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group Zakaria Malahifji said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group, said the number was closer to 3,000, including around 600 fighters.
The Syria conflict:
- The Syrian civil war is heading into its sixth year
- Bashar al-Assad has been President since July 2000
- An anti-regime uprising started in March 2011 off the back of the Arab Spring
- UN estimates more than 250,000 killed
- Eleven million Syrians displaced
- There are few signs of the conflict ending
Turkey steps up efforts to help evacuees
Turkey was making efforts to increase the number of buses used for the evacuation to speed up the process, with the number of buses being used doubling to about 50, Mr Malahifji said.
“There are a lot of buses now,” SOHR director Rami Abdulrahman said.
A camp to host people evacuated from Aleppo will be set up near the border inside Syria, senior Turkish officials said, adding that Turkey would continue to accept sick and injured coming from the city.
Two sites, around 3.5 kilometres inside Syria, have been identified as potential locations for the camp, which will have the capacity to host up to 80,000 people, officials said.
About 30,000 to 35,000 people were expected to come.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in the Government’s campaign to retake Aleppo.
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas of control during the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies — which began in mid-November — saw the insurgents lose most of their territory in a matter of weeks.