A number of buses containing fighters from east Aleppo and their families left the last rebel-held sector of the Syrian city on Sunday after a deal between rebels and pro-government forces allowed evacuations to resume.
Pro-government forces agreed to the deal in exchange for people being allowed to leave two Shi’ite villages besieged by insurgents. The Aleppo evacuation ground to a halt on Friday after a disagreement over the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya.
Syrian state television, citing its correspondent in the city, said on Sunday buses had started to leave east Aleppo where over 15,000 people gathered in a square to wait for the buses. Many had spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures.
However, five buses were attacked and burned on their way there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state media said.
State television showed pictures of flames coming from the green buses which have come to be synonymous with evacuations in Syria.
Videos broadcast on social media showed men with guns cheering and shouting “God is great” as the buses burned.
State media said “armed terrorists”, a term it uses for groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, carried out the attack. Pro-Damascus Mayadeen television said the rebel group formerly known as the Nusra Front was behind the attack.
Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government “operatives”, was responsible.
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the insurgents out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.
“EVERYONE IS WAITING”
According to Syria’s al-Ikhbariya TV news, about 1,200 civilians would initially be evacuated from east Aleppo and a similar number from the two villages.
A document cited by al-Manar television and passed to Reuters by rebels and activists said the entire deal would see 2,500 citizens leave al-Foua and Kefraya in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo in two corresponding batches.
Following this, another 1,500 would leave al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of 1,500 from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Lebanon, which are besieged by pro-government forces.
Once evacuees from the villages have safely arrived in government areas, Aleppo fighters and more of their family members will be allowed to leave, in return for subsequent batches of people departing al-Foua and Kefraya, al-Ikhbariya TV reported.
In the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district, organizers gave every family a number to allow them on buses.
“Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape,” said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.
Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.
UNITED NATIONS VOTE
The chaos surrounding the evacuation reflects the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.
The United Nations Security Council is due to vote Sunday on a French-drafted resolution aimed at ensuring that U.N. officials can monitor the evacuations from Aleppo and the protection of civilians who remain.
Those who were evacuated on Thursday were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo.
Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.
The draft U.N. text, seen by Reuters on Saturday, also “emphasizes that the evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice, and protection must be provided to all civilians who choose or who have been forced to be evacuated and those who opt to remain in their homes.”
A vote has been scheduled for Sunday morning, diplomats said.
It was not immediately clear how Russia would vote. Before the draft was circulated to the council, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Friday: “If it is a sensible initiative and we see it on paper, why not entertain this initiative?”
Russia, an ally of Damascus that has provided military backing to Assad’s troops, has vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011. China joined Moscow in vetoing five resolutions.
A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed. -REUTERS