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One convoy of buses, ambulance allowed to leave east Aleppo

No word on what impact rebels burning buses may have on further Aleppo departures
Syrians wait to be evacuated from east Aleppo on Sunday (Anadolu)

A small convoy carrying 350 people was able to leave a rebel-held pocket of east Aleppo late on Sunday, a medical official said, though evacuations have officially been postponed.

"Five buses carrying the evacuees arrived from besieged parts of east Aleppo," said Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers coordinating evacuations to rebel-held Khan al-Assal.

"They were in a terrible state," Dbis said. "They hadn't eaten, they had nothing to drink, the children had caught colds, they were not even able to go to the toilet."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the 350 were evacuated after Russia and Turkey urged the Syrian government to allow the convoy of buses to pass its final control point.

The evacuations from rebel-held areas of Aleppo had been suspended on Friday, a day after convoys of people had begun leaving the rebel sector under a deal allowing the government to take full control of the battleground city.

The main obstacle to a resumption had been a dispute over how many people would be evacuated in parallel from two Shia villages, Fuaa and Kafraya, under rebel siege in northwestern Syria.

But just as a deal to go ahead with the evacuations was made and announced by both sides, rebel gunmen attacked buses sent to take people out of Fuaa and Kafraya and torched them, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one bus driver was killed in the attack and that security guarantees would be needed before evacuations could resume. 

Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group confirmed that "the evacuations have been momentarily suspended".

By early evening, more than 30 buses were packed with people awaiting evacuation, while thousands more stood in the cold for their turn to board other buses, an AFP reporter said.

The five buses leaving Aleppo were held, packed with evacuees, for hours before they were finally allowed to drive the 5km to rebel-held territory outside.

In return for the evacuation of fighters, their families and other civilians from Aleppo, the mostly Sunni rebels had agreed that people in the villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, Shia villages that they have besieged near Idlib, should also be allowed to leave.

Videos posted on social media showed bearded men with guns cheering and shouting "God is great" after torching the green buses before they were able to reach the villages.

State media said "armed terrorists," a term it uses for all groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, had carried out the attack. Pro-Damascus Mayadeen television and the Observatory blamed the rebel group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

Although the Aleppo evacuation convoy was eventually cleared to drive to rebel-held al-Rashideen, there was no official word on what impact the bus burning would have on the departure of more convoys from the city and the two villages.

While the Observatory said the convoy of five buses had reached al-Rashideen, a United Nations official in Syria said only that they had left east Aleppo, adding: "The evacuations are on".

Robert Mardini, regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is at the forefront of the operation, tweeted that the buses and one ambulance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent "just left dark & cold E #Aleppo," adding: "Hopeful operation will proceed smoothly."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's main foreign backer, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, the rebels' main supporter, agreed by telephone on Sunday that the disruptions must be quickly overcome, sources in Erdogan's office said.

The commander of forces allied to Assad said there was still a chance for states with influence over rebel groups to find a way to evacuate civilians safely.

In a statement carried by a military news outlet run by Damascus's ally, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the allied forces leadership said responsibility for the delay in the evacuation falls with "terrorists and their state sponsors".

Some 40 km to the northeast, hundreds of fighters and their families in Aleppo sat or stood in buses, hoping the evacuation would resume after a three-day hiatus.

Syrian state television, citing its correspondent in the city, said buses had started to leave east Aleppo where over 15,000 people had gathered in a square to wait, many after a night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the rebels out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.

According to Syria's al-Ikhbariya TV news, about 1,200 civilians would initially be evacuated from east Aleppo and a similar number from the two villages.

A document cited by al-Manar television and passed to Reuters by rebels and activists, said the entire deal would see 2,500 citizens leave Fuaa and Kafraya in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo in two corresponding batches.

After this, another 1,500 would leave Fuaa and Kafraya in exchange for the evacuation of 1,500 from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Lebanon, which are besieged by pro-government forces.

Once evacuees from the villages have safely arrived in government areas, Aleppo fighters and more of their family members will be allowed to leave, in return for subsequent batches of people departing Fuaa and Kafraya, al-Ikhbariya TV reported.

In the square in Aleppo's Sukari district, organisers gave every family a number to allow them on buses.

"Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape," said Salah al-Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.

They were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.