Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo arrive by bus to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The evacuation of the last opposition-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo was suspended on Friday after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people should also be brought out of two Shi’ite villages being besieged by rebel fighters.

Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo arrive by bus to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

The second day of the operation to take fighters and civilians out of Aleppo’s rebel enclave ground to a halt amid recriminations from all sides after a morning that had seen the pace of the operation pick up.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.

Russia said the Syrian army had established control over all districts of eastern Aleppo although government troops were suppressing isolated areas where rebel fighters continued to resist.


Rebel sources accused pro-government Shi’ite militias of opening fire on buses carrying evacuees from east Aleppo. Road blocks went up and a bus convoy was forced to turn back.

Rebels in eastern Aleppo went on high alert after pro-government forces prevented civilians from leaving and deployed heavy weaponry on the road out of the area, a Syrian rebel commander in the city said.

A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups.

But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province should also be evacuated.

Iran, one of Syria’s main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a ceasefire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said.

A Syrian rebel source said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, had agreed to let injured people out of the villages. But a Nusra source denied this.

The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of the war with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on each side.

Though both Russia and Iran back Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi’ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow’s efforts to broker the evacuation of eastern Aleppo.

ALEPPO EVACUATION

Aid agencies involved in the Aleppo evacuation had been told to leave the area without explanation after the operation was aborted, the World Health Organization said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said a total of 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, had left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances since the evacuation began on Thursday morning.

Photos sent by an activist waiting to leave the rebel-held sector of east Aleppo showed crowds of people in thick coats in a street lined with flattened buildings in the cold winter air.

Private cars and minibuses with bundles strapped to their roofs filled the street, as people sat on rubble or stood next to bags of their belongings.

In a message sent to journalists, the activist said children were “hungry and crying” and people were “exhausted”, not knowing if buses would arrive to take them out.

By early Friday morning, nearly 200 evacuated patients had arrived in eight “overwhelmed” hospitals in opposition-held rural western Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey, according to the WHO.

The United Nations says 50,000 people remain in rebel-held Aleppo, of whom about 10,000 would be taken to Idlib province and the rest would go to government-held city districts.

Idlib province, mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, is not a popular destination for fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, where nationalist rebel groups predominated.

Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian air strikes but it is unclear if the government will push for a ground assault or simply seek to contain rebels there for now.

Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.

Two potential sites just inside Syria have been identified to set up a camp, which could host up to 80,000 people, Turkish officials said, adding that they expected up to 35,000 people to come. Turkey would continue to accept sick and wounded coming from Aleppo.

PUTIN SEEKS CEASEFIRE

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s most powerful ally, said he was working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire.

Speaking in Japan, Putin said the new talks could be held in Kazakhstan and would complement U.N.-brokered negotiations that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva.

“The next step is to reach an agreement on a total ceasefire across the whole of Syria,” the Russian leader said.

A senior Syrian opposition leader, Riyad Hijab, said he was willing to attend the talks if the aim was to set up a transition government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ruled out stepping down as part of a political solution to the war.

Aleppo, a once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war that has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

The United States was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a ceasefire this week.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Syrian government was carrying out “nothing short of a massacre” in Aleppo.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the U.N. Security Council would meet on Friday to discuss a quick deployment of U.N. observers to east Aleppo to ensure there were no atrocities and that humanitarian aid reached the city.

The Syrian White Helmets civil defence group and other rights organisations accused Russia of committing or being complicit in war crimes in Syria, saying Russian air strikes in the Aleppo region had killed 1,207 civilians, including 380 children.

Even with victory for Assad in Aleppo, the war will still be far from over. Insurgents retain their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist Islamic State group holds swathes of the east and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)

Men react as they stand outside buses evacuating people from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo
Men react as they stand outside buses evacuating people from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Empty buses are seen leaving after the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo was suspended, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
An evacuee from rebel-held east Aleppo, sits on a wheelchair upon his arrival with others to the town of al-Rashideen, which is held by insurgents, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

 

A rebel fighter stands near a bus transporting evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo, upon their arrival to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo react upon their arrival to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo arrive to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo, arrive in a car with a shattered windscreen to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad sit on a tank as a convoy of buses and other vehicles bringing people out of eastern Aleppo turns back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A convoy of buses and other vehicles bringing people out of eastern Aleppo turns back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

 

Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo react upon their arrival to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Evacuees from rebel-held east Aleppo, arrive to the town of al-Rashideen, which is held by insurgents, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo ride on pick-up trucks along the government-held area of al-Ramousah bridge, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Ambulances and buses wait as they evacuate people from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
A picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is seen in Ramouseh, a government controlled area of Aleppo, Syria December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

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TOKYO (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia would now pursue talks on a nationwide ceasefire in Syria.

Speaking at a news conference during a visit to Japan, Putin said that he had agreed with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to hold peace talks on Syria in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

Those talks would be in addition to United Nations brokered talks that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva, Putin told reporters.

(Reporting by Katya Golubkova; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Alexander Winning)

***

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – The evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo was suspended on Friday and a Reuters witness heard at least four blasts at a location where buses had been departing.

A state-run Syrian TV station reported that rebels had breached an agreement with the government by trying to take prisoners with them during the evacuation.

A Syrian official overseeing the evacuation told Reuters it had been obstructed due to “obstructions”.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones)

***

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Private cars left Aleppo along with convoys of buses evacuating rebel fighters and civilians from the Syrian city on Friday, a rebel official, a monitoring group and an official on the government side said.

“People with their own cars were allowed to leave along with the buses today,” said Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said cars were leaving the city as efforts to complete the evacuation of thousands from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo appeared to accelerate.

An official on the Syrian government side involved in overseeing the evacuations confirmed the reports.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Gareth Jones)

***

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A military news outlet run by Damascus’s ally Hezbollah said protesters had blocked a road being used to evacuate fighters and civilians from Aleppo on Friday, demanding the evacuation of people from two Shi’ite villages in Idlib province.

Damascus ally Iran has demanded that the villages, Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels, be included in a ceasefire deal under which rebel fighters and civilians are leaving Aleppo, both rebels and United Nations officials said.

A Reuters witness later confirmed the protests.

(Reporting by John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Gareth Jones)