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'Aleppo is now a synonym for hell'

December 16, 2016

Evacuation efforts in Aleppo have been halted as rebels and pro-government forces trade accusations of breaking the deal. Meanwhile, an explosion occurred outside a police station in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Syrien Krieg - Evakuierungen in Aleppo
Image: picture alliance/AA /M. Ebu Omer

The United Nations, alongside other international aid agencies, appealed to the Syrian government to restart the evacuation efforts in eastern Aleppo. The call came as the opposing sides traded blame for breaking the agreement set forth to allow both civilians and rebel fighters to leave the city.

"Aleppo is now a synonym for hell," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, adding that the UN was ready to help resuce people as needed. Amnesty International also publicly joined calls to resume the evacuation process.

Syrian state TV said anti-government forces had disrupted the evacuation efforts, claiming that rebels had tried to smuggle "heavy weapons and hostages from east Aleppo" on Friday, prompting a halt to the evacuation that had started on the previous day.

Pro-government sources and media accused the rebels of opening fire on a convoy of evacuees. Witnesses from the scene reported hearing at least four blasts near the departure point in the war-torn city.

"The evacuation operation has been suspended because the militants failed to respect the conditions of the agreement," a security source told the AFP news agency. The White Helmets (also known as the Syrian Civil Defense), a non-governmental Syrian defense group largely financed by western governments, meanwhile confirmed in a tweet that rescue and evacuation operations in Aleppo had come to a halt.

Some reports even indicated that some evacuation convoys that had already left Aleppo were later turned around and forced to return.

Protesters block road

Members of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Red Cross Committee and Red Crescent were told to leave the area with buses and ambulances. The order was given "without explanation," said the WHO top representative for Syria, Elizabeth Hoff. Doctors Without Borders (MSF), however, indicated that many medical and aid staff remained behind to assist those requiring help with whatever evacuation procedures were still in place.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the suspension was actually a tool designed to pressure rebels to allow evacuations from two government-held villages besieged by opposition forces. Additionally, an outlet run by regime ally Hezbollah said protesters had blocked a road used to evacuate Aleppo citizens, demanding that people from the two villages in Idlib province also be extracted.

It was not immediately clear how long the suspension would last. Some 9,500 people, including 3,000 rebels, have left the city since Thursday, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. However, many thousands more remain in the last corner of Aleppo still controlled by the opposition.

Evacuation of eastern Aleppo halted

Adding to the confusion, the Russian ceasefire monitoring center announced that the evacuation was already complete and that "all women and children" were transported out of the city.

"Syrian army forces have continued liberations of the Aleppo areas still holding the extremists," the center said in a statement cited by the Russian Interfax news agency.

A Syrian rebel official immediately denied the claim. 

"Only the wounded and some civilians left," said Turkey-based Zakaria Malahifji.

"No fighters came out. Nobody came out. All that came out was three convoys."

The government in Ankara, for its part, said the evacuations had only been suspended but were not yet over, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking credit for the momentary truce in Aleppo and tweeting that the evacuations were the only hope left for those trapped in Aleppo.

Explosion rocks police station in Damascus

Meanwhile, the Syrian capital Damascus was rocked by a bomb placed outside a police station in the al-Midan district to the south of the city. SOHR, using a network of informants on the ground in Syria, confirmed the event, which was reported to have resulted in at least one casualty. The observatory added that it had no information on what exactly had caused the blast. 

The pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan said that the blast had left a "female suicide bomber dead and wounded three police officers from the station." Syrian state news agency SANA also stated that the explosion had been caused by a "terrorist" while Syria's state-run Ikhbariya news channel said that the suicide bomber was a 7 or 9-year-old girl.

Explosions inside Damascus are rare; rebel groups have, however, fired rockets and mortar rounds into the capital in the past.

Putin and Erdogan pushing for peace talks

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he was working with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to set up fresh peace negotiations.

"We are engaged in very intense talks with the representatives of armed opposition, with Turkey also involved as a mediator," Putin said during a diplomatic visit to Japan.

Commenting on the Syrian war after Aleppo, Putin said the "next stage is to reach an agreement on a complete ceasefire on all of Syria's territory."

"The venue could be the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana," said Putin. "If that happens, the talks won't compete with the Geneva talks, but will complement them."

President Obama comments on developments in Syria

US President Barack Obama meanwhile also commented on the unfolding events during the last press conference of his presidency, saying that Russia alongside the Syrian regime jointly had the blood of Syrians on their hands and that President Bashar al Assad's regime could not "slaughter its way to legitamacy."

Obama later added that he had "taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war - while having also to take into account the long-term national security interest of the United States," stressing that he had tried everything in his power "short of putting a large number of US troops on the ground – uninvited."


Syria's crisis in facts and figures

dj,ss/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)