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Aleppo evacuation: Families wait in freezing cold as Obama denounces Syria 'horror'

Russia says Aleppo evacuation would open way for other ceasefires after government says new deal agreed
US President Barack Obama at his last news conference of the year at the White House in Washington, DC, on 16 December, 2016 (Reuters)

Thousands of people were still waiting in the cold on the streets of Aleppo for evacuations to resume on Saturday afternoon, after the government said a news deal had been struck.

The Syrian government has said evacuations from Aleppo will resume, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said several hours later that there had been no progress on the ground in Aleppo. 

Bilal Abdul Kareem, the only foreign journalist still inside East Aleppo, confirmed to MEE that "some sort of deal" had likely been struck.

Thousands of civilians reportedly camped out in below-freezing temperatures overnight, desperate for evacuations to resume, and were still waiting on Saturday afternoon.

"People are hoping to start moving again soon," Abdul Kareem told MEE on Saturday afternoon.

"They are waiting for the green buses again. But the buses haven't showed up and people are just waiting in the street.

"It's cold, sub-zero temperatures at night, with people spending the night in bombed-out buildings."

Civilians held 'hostage to negotiations'

Evacuation buses headed on Saturday afternoon towards two villages besieged by rebel fighters, a media outlet run by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah reported.

The evacuation of rebel-held areas of Syria's east Aleppo ground to a halt on Friday over demands from pro-government forces that people also be moved out of the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya.

News that evacuations were going ahead in al-Foua and Kefraya raised hopes that buses may be sent back to transport the rest of the people still trapped inside east Aleppo. 

The ICRC said it was ready to start facilitating the Aleppo procedures again, warning that it requires "solid guarantees" from the armed parties on the ground.

"They are the ones who have to protect people and provide safe passage," IRCR Syria head Marianne Gasser said in a statement. 

Russia said on Saturday that a successful evacuation of Aleppo could pave the way for regional ceasefires in other parts of Syria.

The head of the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, however, warned that the carnage in Aleppo could set a precedent for conflict not just in Syria but in other countries too.

"There is grave risk now that such displacement and suffering will not stop, but will be repeated elsewhere, in other wars. For the sake of civilian protection everywhere, Syria's conflict must be ended, now, and without delay," Grandi said. "Civilians should not be hostage to negotiations." 

President Obama had called late on Friday for impartial observers for the evacuation procedure, and warned President Bashar al-Assad that he would not be able to "slaughter his way to legitimacy".

"The world as we speak is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo," he told an end-of-year press conference.

Obama also defended his policy record on Syria, saying intervention against Assad could not have been done "on the cheap".

"Everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap," he said, defending his decision and blaming Assad for the bloodshed.

"Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone: with the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran," he said.

"This blood, and these atrocities, are on their hands." 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier warned that Aleppo had become "a synonym for hell" and said the United Nations urged "all necessary measures" for a safe resumption of the evacuation.

The Security Council could vote this weekend on a French-drafted proposal to allow international observers in Aleppo and ensure urgent aid deliveries.

A Syrian boy living as a refugee in Greece lights candles spelling the word 'Aleppo' during a solidarity protest on Friday (AFP)

Civilians stranded in sub-zero temperatures

Thousands of civilians spent the night in bombed-out apartment blocks in rebel Aleppo in desperate hope of a resumption of organised evacuations on Saturday, an AFP correspondent reported.

Entire families camped out in whatever shelter they could find in the rebel-held part of al-Amiriyah district, which was the departure point for evacuations before they were suspended by the Syrian government on Friday.

Temperatures plummeted to minus 6 Celsius (52 Fahrenheit) overnight, an appalling challenge for the remaining civilians in rebel areas who have received no aid deliveries since June.

Many had not had a proper meal in days and were surviving on just a few dates, AFP's correspondent reported.

Anticipating evacuation, a lot of people had burned all possessions they could not carry with them, determined not to allow them to be looted by victorious government troops and militia.

The precise number of people still trapped in the last rebel-held pocket southwest of the city centre is unclear.

A member of Syrian pro-government forces pushes a woman in a wheelchair during evacuations earlier this week (AFP)

Concern after fleeing civilians taken hostage

A Syrian government source told Reuters on Saturday morning that there was agreement to resume evacuations from Aleppo, along with evacuations from four other towns, two of which are besieged by rebels and another two under siege by pro-government forces. 

"It was agreed to resume evacuations from east Aleppo in parallel with the evacuation of [medical] cases from Kefraya [Kafarya] and al-Foua and some cases from Zabadani and Madaya," said the source, who is part of the evacuations negotiating team.

Concern over the future of the evacuation came after reports that at least 800 civilians were taken hostage by pro-Assad militias as their convoy left the city on Friday. 

"A group of cars carrying hundreds of people out of east Aleppo was stopped by tanks belonging to Shia militias and taken hostage for two hours," said Seraj Alomar, manager of Boraq news agency and a witness who was on the convoy.

Aleppo evacuation: Refugees killed and robbed as convoy flees city

The convoy was stopped at a Hezbollah checkpoint on the way to the west Aleppo countryside, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported.

"They killed four men among us and robbed us of all our possessions," added Alomar, who recorded his testimony in a video published by Thiqa news agency on Twitter. 

"The militias created a huge commotion, pretending that there were rebels among us who had started shooting at them," said the witness, who confirmed the convoy was made up of unarmed people and included many women, children and elderly.

"They asked all the men to get out of the vehicles, strip and lay face down on the floor," he said. "Then they started beating us and threatening to kill us."