Aleppo Evacuation Delayed – Rebels Blame Iran

By Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington

The evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo due to start at dawn was delayed, perhaps until Thursday, with an opposition official blaming Iran and its Shi’ite militias allied to President Bashar al-Assad for the hold-up.

A still image from video taken October 12, 2016 of a general view of the bomb damaged Old City area of Aleppo, Syria. Video released October 12, 2016. REUTERS/via ReutersTV

A ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkey ended years of fighting in the city and has given the Syrian leader his biggest victory yet after more than five years of war.

Syrian forces resumed shelling rebel areas briefly on Thursday morning in what Russia said was a response to rebel attacks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said rebel resistance was likely to end in the next two or three days.

Officials in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad could not be reached immediately for comment on why the evacuation was delayed.

Turkey blamed Syrian government forces and other groups for trying to obstruct the evacuation deal and said there would be more talks with Russia and Iran. Rebel sources blamed Iran for the hold-up.

“What is stopping the agreement presently is Iranian obstinacy,” a commander with the rebel Nour al-Din al-Zinki group told Reuters from eastern Aleppo.

Sources on Tuesday had given different expected start times for the evacuation. A military official in the pro-Assad alliance had said the evacuation was due to start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT), while opposition officials had been expecting a first group of wounded people to leave earlier.

However, none had left by dawn, according to a Reuters witness waiting at the agreed point of departure. Twenty buses were waiting there with their engines running but showed no sign of moving into rebel districts.

Officials with Aleppo’s rebel groups accused Shi’ite militias backed by Iran of obstructing the deal. The pro-opposition Orient TV said it may be delayed until Thursday.

People in eastern Aleppo have been packing their bags and burning personal possessions as they prepare to leave, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed militia allies.

In what appeared to be a separate development from the planned evacuation, the Russian defence ministry said 6,000 civilians and 366 fighters had left rebel-held districts over the past 24 hours.

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria

RAPID ADVANCES

The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire.

Syrian girls outside a bakery in a rebel-held neighbourhood in Aleppo, July 2016. The city has suffered enormous destruction in a war that has killed 400,000 across Syria, according to the UN. Photograph: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian girls outside a bakery in a rebel-held neighbourhood in Aleppo, July 2016. The city has suffered enormous destruction in a war that has killed 400,000 across Syria, according to the UN. Photograph: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

By taking full control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shi’ite militias from across the region.

Rebels groups have been supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but the support they have enjoyed has fallen far short of the direct military backing given to Assad by Russia and Iran.

Russia’s decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad’s favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.

The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria.

 

Source: Reuters.com

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