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Dec 16, 2016

The Guardian | World | Middle East | Aleppo: Aleppo Evacuation Suspended as al-Qaida-Linked Rebels Obstruct Deal, by Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen

A deal to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians from the besieged districts of east Aleppo has been suspended and is at risk of unravelling after al-Qaida linked fighters in Idlib province refused to allow a simultaneous evacuation of the wounded in two pro-government villages.

The obstruction of the deal by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) risks reigniting large-scale fighting that threatens the lives of civilians who have yet to depart from the shrinking patch of territory under opposition control in east Aleppo, and who have lived for months with dwindling food and water supplies and no functioning hospitals.
Rebels in Idlib are part of a predominantly Islamist coalition, of which JFS is one of the most powerful.
A source with knowledge of the evacuation deal told the Guardian it was suspended over JFS’s refusal to allow the evacuation of the wounded from Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in Idlib province that have been besieged by rebels for years.
About 8,000 people have already been evacuated from east Aleppo under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in buses, ambulances and private cars that left the besieged districts between Thursday and Friday morning.
Buses and ambulances that had been waiting to evacuate more people left the departure zone after gunfire and explosions were heard.
The evacuation of the Shia villages was part of the agreement reached on Wednesday night after Turkish and Russian mediation. The rebels blamed the regime for obstructing the evacuation, saying government forces fired on the evacuation road and are holding hostage 25 vehicles that left east Aleppo. The source with knowledge of the deal said the vehicles were detained after the suspension was announced, and the evacuees there are accompanied by ICRC and Red Crescent workers.
A rebel source said negotiations were ongoing to rescue the deal, but that Iran was deliberately attempting to undermine it by demanding a “Christmas wishlist” of concessions that include handing over the bodies of Shia fighters, releasing prisoners of war, and a full evacuation of all of the inhabitants of Fua and Kefraya.
“The recent statements that you’re hearing from the Russians about the evacuation being over are false: they just lost control over the Iranians and they don’t want to look bad, so they’re saying the whole evacuation is over,” the source said, referring to an announcement on Russian state news agencies that the evacuation was over despite tens of thousands of civilians remaining in the rebel’s east Aleppo enclave.
“Iranian militia, with the regime, are planning a massacre in east Aleppo and [of] the hostages,” the source added
The delicate operation to evacuate remaining civilians and fighters from east Aleppo began on Thursday and continued through the night. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 8,500 people had left the city, going to rebel-held territory in the west of the province.
A ground assault led by Iranian-backed militias supporting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, began an operation to recapture all of Aleppo in mid-November and had overrun more than 90% of the former rebel bastion before the evacuation began.
The evacuation of the wounded from Fua and Kefraya was agreed as a concession to Iran, which blocked an initial ceasefire and evacuation deal that was negotiated on Tuesday night.
Iran, also an ally of President Assad, has demanded that Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels, be included in the ceasefire deal under which rebel fighters and civilians are leaving Aleppo, according to UN officials and rebels.
Russia said it was convening Syrian peace talks for later this month that will be attended by Iran and Turkey but none of the Gulf states or western powers. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said the talks on 27 December would complement rather than compete with the UN-led Geneva peace process, and are being convened on the basis of retaining Syria as a unitary state.
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour