Evacuation of east Aleppo under way during ceasefire

At least 53 vehicles transport over 1,000 civilians out of the eastern part of the war-torn Syrian city.

The evacuation of the eastern part of the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo has begun with ambulances and buses carrying the wounded and sick leaving the rebel-held territory in the city under a fragile exit deal.

A slow-moving convoy of around two dozen vehicles snaked out of Al-Amiriyah district and crossed into government-held Ramussa en route to rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo province.

Later in the day, two more convoys comprising over 15 buses left for the countryside to the west, Syrian state television reported.

The evacuation got off to a shaky start. Ibrahim Abu Allaith of the Syrian Civil Defence  told Al Jazeera that militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly killed at least one person and injured four more while firing on the first convoy of injured evacuees.

AFP news agency reported that the first batch of convoy was led by vehicles from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, followed by ambulances and then green government buses.

ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky said the first convoy included 13 ambulances and 20 buses carrying civilians. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a total of 21 buses and 19 ambulanes had left east Aleppo.

“They have crossed the front line and are on their way to rural parts of western Aleppo,” Sedky told AFP.

The evacuation on Thursday was part of a ceasefire expected to last three days and result in the transfer of thousands of civilians and fighters from the embattled territory. 

READ MORE: Battle for Aleppo – ‘The sound of bullets doesn’t stop’

Zouhir Al Shimale, an independent journalist in east Aleppo, said the evacuation was still under way despite the attacks on an ambulance.

“There hasn’t been fighting since the morning,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that “hundreds of families” have gathered at the departure point for the buses.

“Civilians are given the choice to stay or leave. If they stay, they’ll be under regime control. Most of the people want to go because they are afraid of potential massacres by the regime,” Shimale added.

“In recent days, people are desperate to get to somewhere where we have the supplies – food, medicine, fuel – like we used to have in the days before the siege. Even if they are in refugee camps, but people still want to leave the besieged area.”

As part of the agreement, the Russian defence ministry said that it was preparing for the transfer of rebel fighters by buses and ambulances to Idlib city, located around 65 kilometres from Aleppo.

Families were lined up at the point of departure hoping to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo [Malek Al Shimale/Al Jazeera]

Deadly fighting broke out on Wednesday after a similar truce deal collapsed.

Under the initial plan, thousands of civilians and rebel fighters were due to evacuate the east of Syria’s second city, scene of some of the worst violence in more than five years of war across the country.

The delay came on Wednesday morning when pro-government Shia militias demanded that civilians in Kafraya and al-Fua – two towns besieged by armed opposition groups – be evacuated, as well. 

READ MORE: How much longer can east Aleppo hold out?

Thursday’s agreement allowed for the evacuation of wounded civilians from Kafraya and Fua, and ambulances were reportedly en route to the two towns by noon local time (10:00 GMT).

Turkey said it would meet with Russia and Iran in Moscow on December 27 to discuss a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Syria’s army has pressed a month-long assault that has seen it take more than 90 percent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.

Turkey has said those leaving would be taken to Idlib province, which is controlled by a powerful rebel alliance that includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.The UN said on Tuesday that it had credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed in recent days.

And the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria said it had received reports opposition fighters were blocking civilians from fleeing Aleppo and using them as human shields.

Aleppo, a cultural and economic hub second only to Damascus in importance, had been split between a rebel-controlled east and government-held west since 2012.

It was unclear how many civilians remained in rebel territory, after an estimated 130,000 fled to other parts of Aleppo during the government advance since mid-November.

Syria’s conflict has evolved from largely unarmed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into a full-scale civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than half of the country’s prewar population.

READ MORE: What went wrong in Syria’s east Aleppo?

Marwan Kabalan, a Syria analyst and associate political analyst at the Doha Institute, said he expects the Syrian government to focus its attacks on the Damascus suburbs after the fall of Aleppo. 

“I think the regime will turn next to targeting the Damascus suburbs,” he told Al Jazeera. “Idlib is becoming a point of exile for fighters … I think it will remain like this till the very end [of the conflict].”

Throughout four years of fighting, Aleppo has seen intense battles that left much of the city in ruins. 

AlHakam Shaar, a research fellow at the Budapest-based Aleppo Project , an initiative that tracks the destruction in the historic city, explained that more than 20 percent of Aleppo’s buildings were fully destroyed and another 40 percent partially damaged as far back as early 2014.

“The percentages are far higher now. However, there is no way to accurately measure the extent of destruction without a full on the ground survey,” he told Al Jazeera.

“There will also be a need for planning the rehabilitation of whole systems of infrastructure, from roads to water networks.”

With reporting by Patrick Strickland

More than 40 vehicles were used in the evacuation of civilians [Reuters]
The evacuation was part of a ceasefire expected to last three days [Malek al-Shimale]
People evacuated from Aleppo arrived in the opposition-controlled Khan al-Aassal region [AFP]
Syria: Under Russia’s fist – People and Power

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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