Clashes erupt as Aleppo evacuation delayed

The planned evacuation of rebel districts of Aleppo stalled on Wednesday as air strikes and heavy shelling hit the city and Iran was said to have imposed new conditions on the deal.

Iran, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers in the battle for Aleppo, wanted a simultaneous evacuation of wounded from the villages of Foua and Kefraya that are besieged by rebels, according to rebel and UN sources.

Rebel groups said that was just an excuse to hold up the evacuation, which a pro-opposition TV station said could now be delayed until Thursday.

A ceasefire brokered on Tuesday by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkey was intended to end years of fighting in the city, giving the Syrian leader his biggest victory in more than five years of war.

But air strikes, shelling and gunfire erupted on Wednesday morning and a monitoring group said the truce appeared to have collapsed. Syrian state television said rebel shelling of the Bustan al-Qasr district, recently recaptured by the army, had killed six people.

Russia said government forces were responding to rebel attacks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said rebel resistance was likely to end in the next two or three days.

Officials in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad could not be reached immediately for comment on why the evacuation, expected to start in the early hours of Wednesday, had been delayed.

Nobody had left by dawn, according to a Reuters witness waiting at the agreed departure point. Twenty buses waited with engines running but showed no sign of moving into rebel districts.

People in eastern Aleppo packed their bags and burned personal belongings, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed militia allies.

In what appeared to be a separate development from the planned evacuation, the Russian defence ministry said 6,000 civilians and 366 fighters had left rebel-held districts over the past 24 hours.

The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire.

By taking full control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shia militias from across the region.

Rebels groups have been supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but the support they have enjoyed has fallen far short of the direct military backing given to Assad by Russia and Iran.

Russia’s decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad’s favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.

The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria.

Russia regards the fall of Aleppo as a major victory against terrorists, as it and Assad characterize all the rebel groups, both Islamist and nationalist, fighting to oust him.

But at the United Nations, the United States said the violence in the city, besieged and bombarded for months, represented “modern evil”.

The once-flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverized during the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed the rise of Islamic State.

As the battle for Aleppo unfolded, global concern has risen over the plight of the 250,000 civilians who were thought to remain in its rebel-held eastern sector before the sudden army advance began at the end of November.

Tens of thousands of them fled to parts of the city held by the government or by a Kurdish militia, and tens of thousands more retreated further into the rebel enclave as it rapidly shrank under the army’s lightning advance.

The rout of rebels in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”. There were food and water shortages in rebel areas, with all hospitals closed.

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