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'Everyone is hiding and terrified': Aleppo truce again descends into carnage

Civilians awoke in Aleppo to hopes of a ceasefire and escape. Within hours, that hope was once again destroyed
Pro-government fighters speed down a street in Aleppo as civilians try to flee (AFP)

For those left in rebel-held Aleppo, the morning began with hope of an end to their living hell. The Russians and Turks had agreed a ceasefire deal that would lead to their evacuation and escape, for now, from constant bombing and fear of death.

Within hours, those hopes were again shattered. The ceasefire fell into disarray as air attacks resumed, artillery shells fell and reports emerged of cluster munitions spreading their own indiscriminate horrors. 

"Bombing is ongoing, no one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified. The situation is indescribable," activist Mohammad al-Khatib told AFP on Wednesday.

"The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies," he said. 

US journalist trapped in Aleppo feared he would be executed by Syrian army

Russia, the rebels, Turkey and Iran all began searching for someone to blame for the apparent failure of the deal, announced in the late hours of Tuesday and so far advanced that buses were lined up and ready to take people out of the Salaheddin district by 4am.

According to rebel and UN sources, Iran, one of the Syrian government's main backers, decided late on that it wanted the simultaneous evacuation of wounded from two villages, Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebel fighters.

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused the Syrian government and its allies of trying to scupper the ceasefire.

Under the evacuation deal, both civilians and rebel fighters were to be transported to rebel-held territory elsewhere in northern Syria.

"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.

Reports from inside east Aleppo said that Iranian-backed militiamen then began firing on rebel positions, while also refusing to allow anyone past their checkpoints.

The Russian military claimed the buses outside Salaheddin district came under fire from rebel territory after fighters "regrouped and relaunched hostilities".

"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," it said.

And the ceasefire fell into disarray.

Buses sit idle on outskirts of rebel-held areas of Aleppo (AFP)

Speaking to Middle East Eye on Wednesday, journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, who is trapped in eastern Aleppo, said the area where he has taken refuge had been targeted with Grad rockets since the early morning.

He also said that some of those injured were trapped under rubble because rescue workers no longer had the heavy lifting equipment required to reach them.

"Sometimes they're dead and sometimes they're not," he said.

Zouhir al-Shimale, a journalist still inside rebel-controlled territory in east Aleppo, said the ceasefire ended with a ferocious bombardment. Streets he and others had walked only hours before, awaiting evacuation, were once again a mass of dust, confusion and terror.

“Between 10am and 11am the rockets began to be launched and it just went crazy with warplanes,” he said. "Cluster bombs have been raining in the area I am in - the explosion sounds like a machine gun."

No one knew whether the planned evacuations would ever happen. Turkey said it was in contact with Iran, Russia and the US on Wednesday to try to push the deal through.

“We have been kept in the dark and not been told when the evacuations will resume," said Shimale. "Many people are injured with no one being able to rescue them because of how intense the attacks are.”

Ismail Alabdullah, a member of the White Helmets rescue worker group, said the ceasefire is over.

"Everyone will be executed when Assad's forces and their thugs capture our liberated area," he wrote.

Meanwhile, rebels fired shells at Foua and Kefraya, the majority Shia villages in Idlib province west of Aleppo, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Iran did not get its wish.

Shimale said Iran-sponsored militias had opened a new front on his district's eastern side to press the rebels to evacuate. "The attacks are very intense now," he said.

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."

Russia on Wednesday signalled the end was close for rebels in the city. Moscow estimates "terrorists" control a few square miles of territory and the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said he expected resistance to end within three days.

Before fighting erupted once again, rebel-controlled areas were full of civilians burning their possessions, fearing looting by government forces.

One man set fire to his own flat before fleeing, while another burned his car in the street. 

Twitter picture: 'Rebels start burning their vehicles'

Pictures, books and clothes were also destroyed by civilians as they waited for their escape or their capture, and whatever would come next. 

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.

However this battle ends, it appears it will be on Russian and Syrian terms - the rebels control little more than a few square kilometres of territory, according to Russia, and the UN and the US are all but locked out of any ongoing talks. 

The UN said it was "not involved" in any plans to evacuate fighters and civilians, but was ready to help, while the US said it had "no prior knowledge" of the Russia-Turkey deal before it was announced.

And for the people still trapped, the living hell continues.

Thousands remain trapped inside rebel territory in Aleppo (AFP)

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