Civilian evacuation deal in peril as truce brokered by Turkey and Russia shattered by new air attacks, fighting and Iranian demands
The evacuation of civilians and rebels from remaining opposition-held territory in east Aleppo was delayed by several hours on Wednesday, as a Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire crumbled with fresh air and artillery attacks.
Implementation of the deal was expected to begin at about 5am local time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and sources on the ground said.
But three hours later, no movement had been reported inside rebel-held territory, and government buses were sitting idle at the edge of the Salaheddin district.
The delay came as a ceasefire appeared to collapse, with reports of fresh air attacks, Russian claims of rebel attacks and Turkey and rebel forces saying Iranian-backed militias had resumed fighting.
Turkey's foreign minister, Melvut Cavusoglu, said the Syrian government and its allies were trying to block the ceasefire.
"We now see that the regime and some separate groups are trying to prevent this," he said. "The evacuation could not take place in the full sense."
"Iran and Russia need to accept responsibility and stop passing the blame," he said.
Sources inside rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo told Middle East Eye that pro-Assad forces broke the ceasefire in the early hours of Wednesday.
— Zouhir_AlShimale (@ZouhirAlShimale) December 14, 2016
Zohair al-Shimale, an MEE contributor in east Aleppo, said shelling had restarted.
He said Iran-sponsored militias were opening a new front on the eastern side to press the rebels to evacuate. "The attacks are very intense now," he said.
A Turkey-based official in the Jabha Shamiya faction told Reuters: "There is fierce bombardment by the regime forces on besieged Aleppo, using artillery, tanks, and mortars."
Another rebel official and a UN official told the news agency that Iran had placed additional conditions on any ceasefire - a simultaneous evacuation of wounded from the villages of Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels.
"Iranian militias are turning people back," said Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official with an Aleppo rebel group.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted the head of the Turkish Red Crescent as saying that 1,000 people were being held at a checkpoint manned by an Iranian-backed militia.
"These people had passed the Russian checkpoint," Kerem Kinik said. "But after leaving Aleppo, they were stopped at the second point where Iranian militia was present and still they are denied passage," he said.
Meanwhile, Russia said that the ceasefire was broken when buses gathered near Salaheddin came under fire from rebel territory after fighters "regrouped and relaunched hostilities".
The Russian military said in a statement: "The attack by the terrorists was warded off. The Syrian army continued its operation to liberate the eastern districts of Aleppo controlled by the rebels."
Russia's defence ministry was quoted on Wednesday by the Interfax news agency as saying that almost 6,000 civilians, among them 2,000 children, have left rebel-held districts of the Syrian city of Aleppo over the past 24 hours.
The defence ministry also said that over the same period 366 rebels had laid down their arms and moved out of rebel-controlled parts of the city, Interfax reported.
UN sidelined as Russia senses victory
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also said on Wednesday that Moscow expected rebel resistance in Syria's Aleppo to end in the next two to three days.
France's foreign minister said on Wednesday that confusion surrounding the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from eastern Aleppo showed that it was imperative to have United Nations' observers on the ground to manage the process.
"France wants the presence of UN observers on the ground and humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross must intervene," Jean-Marc Ayrault told France 2 television.
The United Nations said it was "not involved" in plans to evacuate fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo, but it was ready to help with any evacuation.
The US said it had "no prior knowledge" of the Russia-Turkey deal before it was announced.
Buses sit idle on outskirts of rebel-held areas of Aleppo (AFP)
In the last parts of the city still held by the rebels, large crowds gathered from before dawn awaiting evacuation.
Many spent the night in the street despite a storm, as they had fled from other areas and had nowhere to stay.
People in rebel-held eastern Aleppo have been packing their bags and burning personal possessions as they prepare to evacuate the area, a witness said, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iran-backed allied militias when they restore control.
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 13, 2016
Eastern Aleppo residents were seen burning things they could not take with them, such as pictures, books, clothes and even a car, since an evacuation deal was announced late on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of civilians have chosen to stay on in the ever-shrinking rebel enclave for fear of arrest or torture by government forces.
Many more have fled to government-held districts or to territory controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Under the evacuation deal, both civilians and rebel fighters were to be transported to rebel-held territory elsewhere in northern Syria.
After weeks of heavy fighting, forces loyal to Assad were on the verge of taking all of the city, dealing the biggest blow to Syria's rebellion in more than five years of civil war.
The agreement came amid mounting global outrage over reports of atrocities, including dozens of summary executions, as forces loyal to Assad closed in on the last pocket of rebel territory in Aleppo.
The United Nations said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo in recent days.
In Geneva, UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said pro-government fighters had in some cases entered homes and killed those inside, and in others "caught and killed on the spot" fleeing civilians.