Aleppo evacuation in chaos: Refugees forced back to devastated neighbourhoods
Thousands of refugees faced another cold night in Aleppo as the planned evacuation from the devastated neighbourhoods of Syria's biggest city ground to a halt on Friday amid reports of an attack on a convoy leaving rebel-held areas.
One column of buses and other vehicles turned back towards the east of the city, which has been besieged and bombed for much of the year, leaving men, women and children stranded on a bridge at the Ramousah road junction.
At one point during the day Russia, which helped to broker the deal with Turkey, said its operation was now "complete" with all women and children moved from the city.
But Ankara and a Syrian military source said the evacuation had been suspended - and that there was still work to be done.
"The evacuations are not over and many people still want to leave the area," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in comments reported by AFP.
Numerous reports on social have surfaced of evacuees being robbed of their possessions. Four Syrian civilians were reportedly killed by Shia militias when a convoy of 800 people was taken hostage near eastern Aleppo on Friday morning.
The operation to bring the remaining civilians and anti-government fighters out of the city’s devastated eastern neighbourhoods had begun the night before. People were taken away in buses, ambulances and flat-bed trucks amid plunging temperatures.
But on Friday morning the operation was abruptly suspended, with the government accusing rebels of violating the terms of the accord.
An AFP correspondent reported hearing gunfire and blasts in Ramussa, the government-held neighbourhood that evacuees had been passing through, and said buses and ambulances waiting to collect residents had left empty.
"The evacuation operation has been suspended because the militants failed to respect the conditions of the agreement," a Syrian security source told AFP.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese ally of Syria's government, said protesters had also blocked a road out of eastern Aleppo, demanding the simultaneous evacuation of Foua and Kefreya, two villages in the Idlib countryside blockaded by rebel groups.
Robert Mardini, regional head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, confirmed that the operation was suspended, adding: "We urge the parties to ensure it can be relaunched and proceed in the right conditions."
Meanwhile some local Syrian media outlets reported that Iranian militias had hijacked approximately 20 private cars that were part of the evacuation and en route to the countryside west of Aleppo.
Middle East Eye cannot independently verify these reports.
Translation: Rebel source: Iran militias have hijacked 20 cars on their way to west #Aleppo countryside
Later, a Syrian rebel source said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Nusra Front), would let injured people out of the besieged Shi'ite villages as early as today, Reuters reported.
"If the evacuation of the injured in Kefraya and al-Foua takes place, the operation to evacuate eastern Aleppo will resume immediately," a Syrian official said in comments reported by the agency.
Putin talks national ceasefire
Meanwhile the Russian military said on Friday that the Syrian army was in the process of clearing the last anti-government fighters from Aleppo, declaring the operation to take control of the city complete.
"The Syrian army's operation to liberate rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods is complete. Syrian government troops are liquidating the radicals' last pockets of resistance," the defence ministry said in a statement.
Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he planned a "national ceasefire" in Syria and new international talks.
"The next step will be to reach agreement on a complete ceasefire across all of Syria," he said while on an official visit to Japan.
"We are actively negotiating with members of the armed opposition, with the mediation of Turkey."
Putin said he had agreed with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to hold peace talks on Syria in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
Local media have reported that under the deal Turkey would provide a safe corridor for any armed group prepared to lay down their arms. Moscow and Ankara would support the unity of Syria while taking joint action against “terrorist groups”.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Putin had told Ankara that any fresh talks in Kazakhstan would be complementary to the peace efforts in Geneva. Cavusoglu added that Ankara would not directly speak with representatives of the Syrian government.
Before the evacuations were suspended, Russia's defence ministry said more than 6,400 people, including more than 3,000 rebels, had been evacuated during the past 24 hours under a ceasefire deal.
The UN Security Council is due to discuss Aleppo on Friday at the request of France, which is calling for international observers to be sent as monitors.
Turkey estimated the number to be nearer 8,000. The Turkish foreign minister said on Twitter that more than 7,000 civilians had been evacuated in the first five convoys.
Turkey said it had identified two sites on the Syrian side of the border for two refugee camps to house up to 80,000 people.
Kerry: Events in Aleppo 'unconscionable'
The evacuations began on Thursday under a ceasefire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia that would end years of fighting in the city and mark a major victory for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian president on Thursday described the Aleppo evacuations as "history in the making".
"What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today, it started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria," Assad said in a video posted on Twitter.
"The people of Aleppo made history with their steadfastness, bravery and sacrifice," he continued, "and every Syrian stood with the people of Aleppo and their homeland."
"I think that after the liberation of Aleppo we'll talk about the situation as... before the liberation of Aleppo and after the liberation of Aleppo."
Russian lieutenant general Viktor Poznikhir, meanwhile, told the Tass news agency that all rebels had left the city.
"The militants have been driven out of all the quarters that remained under their control as a result of the Syrian troops’ offensive," he said.
Russia said the evacuation would be "swift" and promised that no harm would come to anyone who was leaving, according to UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland.
But US Secretary of State John Kerry said what had already happened in the city was "unconscionable", raising concern for the "tens of thousands of lives that are now concentrated into a very small area of Aleppo".
"And the last thing anybody wants to see... is that that small area turns into another Srebrenica," he said, referring to a 1995 Bosnian war massacre.