Syrian TV, rebels trade blame amid halted Aleppo evacuation

Published 10:26 am Friday, December 16, 2016

BEIRUT — The evacuation of eastern Aleppo stalled Friday after an eruption of gunfire, as the Syrian government and rebels threw accusations at each other, raising fears that a peaceful surrender of the opposition enclave could fall apart with thousands of people believed to be still inside.

The government suspended the evacuation, pulling out buses that had been ferrying out people Friday morning and the day before, after reports of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave. The foreign minister of Turkey, a backer of the rebels, said he was in talks with his counterpart in Iran, a top ally of the Syrian government, to try to get the process back on track.

The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal under which civilians and fighters inside the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave in Aleppo were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.

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It appeared to be linked to a separate evacuation to remove thousands of people from two government-held Shiite villages besieged by the rebels. The Syrian government says those evacuations and that in eastern Aleppo must be carried out at the same time under the cease-fire deal, but the rebels say there is no connection.

Syrian state media said rebels shelled a road that was supposed to be used by people evacuating from these two villages. The opposition’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters had cut the road to protest a lack of progress in the evacuations from Foua and Kfarya.

Buses that arrived at a collection point in Hama countryside to pick up people evacuating from the villages waited for hours without any evacuations happening.

Later Friday, two rebel spokesmen privy to the talks said the fighters besieging the two Shiite villages, including al-Qaida linked militant group Fatah al-Sham Front, have agreed to evacuate several hundred wounded from the Shiite villages. If it happens, this may lead to the resumption of evacuation from Aleppo.