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Syria

Aleppo evacuation back on, say rebel sources

Violence restarted in war-ravaged Aleppo, hours after a failed deal to evacuate civilians. Syrian rebel forces said evacuations from Aleppo are expected to begin "within hours."

A military spokesman for the Nour al-Din al Zinki rebel group told news agency Reuters on Wednesday that "an agreement has been reached and within the coming hours its implementation will begin."

Officials from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said the evacuations from Aleppo are expected to begin around 6 a.m. local time (0400 UTC) on Thursday.

After Wednesday morning's truce agreement stalled, the new deal included the evacuation of civilians from two rebel-held Shiite areas in the Idlib province outside of Aleppo.

Syrian military officials, however, sent mixed messages concerning the truce. Initially, a pro-Damascus military official confirmed the deal, saying that 15,000 people from the Idlib villages of Foua and Kefraya would be evacuated, in return for the evacuation of "militants and their families and whoever wants to leave among civilians" from Aleppo's rebel enclaves.

A second military source denied the development, however, saying that negotiations were ongoing. Meanwhile the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hostilities in Aleppo were yet to cease. 

"Bombing is ongoing, no one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified," Syrian activist Mohammad al-Khatib said. "The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies."

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The deal was also thrown into doubt after a military media unit run by Hezbollah, Lebanon's armed Shiite group and ally of Assad, said "the negotiations are seeing big complications, in light of tension and operations on the front lines."

Aleppo ceasefire deal derails

Evacuations were initially scheduled to begin on Wednesday morning after a ceasefire deal was reached between Russia, Assad's main coalition ally, and Turkey, a leading backer of rebel forces.

The deal faltered, however, after Syrian military forces resumed heavy shelling on Wednesday.

Residents who turned up at agreed meeting points to evacuate the city Wednesday morning were turned away by pro-government forces manning the checkpoints. 

 "People have left their shelters .... to be ready for the evacuation. I can't describe it," Mohammed Abu Jaafar, head of forensics in eastern Aleppo said. "Since the morning, they started to target the areas where people have gathered ... These people were walking to the crossings designated for exit."

On Wednesday, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the shelling by Syrian government forces and their allies "most likely constitutes war crimes."

Syrian Pressident Basahr al-Assad defended the offensive, claiming that the latest lull in the fighting was part of a Western plan, aimed at stopping his government's advance in the city. Assad told Russian TV on Wednesday that the truce would "keep the terrorists and save them."

Turkish officials are scheduled to meet with Russian and Iranian counterparts on December 27 to discuss a political solution to the conflict. "We are striving to secure a ceasefire throughout the country and for negotiations for a political solution to start," Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said on Wednesday.

dm/ksb (Reuters, AP)

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