Aleppo hit by strikes, shelling

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Shelling and air strikes sent ter­ri­fied res­i­dents run­ning through the streets of Aleppo yes­ter­day as a deal to evac­u­ate rebel dis­tricts of the city was in dan­ger of fall­ing apart. The agree­ment reached yes­ter­day was meant to pave the way for thou­sands of civil­ians and rebel fight­ers to evac­u­ate Syria’s sec­ond city, scene of some of the worst fight­ing in more than five years of war. But cold and hun­gry civil­ians who had gath­ered be­fore dawn to evac­u­ate were in­stead plunged back into a fa­mil­iar night­mare.

“Bomb­ing is on­go­ing, no one can move. Every­one is hid­ing and ter­ri­fied,” ac­tivist Mo­ham­mad Al-Khatib told AFP from in­side the city. “The wounded and dead are ly­ing in the street. No one dares to try and re­trieve the bod­ies. ”The evac­u­a­tion, agreed un­der a deal bro­kered by Rus­sia and Tur­key, had been due to

be­gin at 5:00 am (0300 GMT) but was de­layed, with buses parked out­side rebel-held ar­eas left wait­ing.

Fol­low­ing sev­eral hours of quiet, fight­ing then erupted anew in the rav­aged city, with Syria’s regime, the rebels and their for­eign al­lies trad­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of blame. As booms of air strikes and artillery fire rang out, an AFP cor­re­spon­dent in rebel ar­eas saw pan­icked civil­ians run­ning in the streets to find shel­ter, some hid­ing in the door­frames of dam­aged build­ings.

The cor­re­spon­dent saw sev­eral wounded civil­ians, as well as a regime tank turn­ing its can­non to­wards op­po­si­tion-held dis­tricts and open­ing fire. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights re­ported “very in­tense clashes on ev­ery front­line” and said at least two peo­ple had been killed in rebel ar­eas. State tele­vi­sion said rebel rocket fire on gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas had also re­sumed, killing at least seven peo­ple. Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan and Russian coun­ter­part Vladimir Putin agreed in a tele­phone call yes­ter­day to make a joint effort to start the evac­u­a­tion of civil­ians and op­po­si­tion forces from east­ern Aleppo as soon as pos­si­ble, Turk­ish presidential sources said. “The sit­u­a­tion on the ground is very frag­ile and com­pli­cated,” Er­do­gan said. Moscow, a staunch ally of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad, said Da­m­as­cus re­sumed its as­sault on Aleppo af­ter rebels vi­o­lated the cease­fire. For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov said Moscow ex­pected rebel re­sis­tance in the city to end in the next “two to three days”.

Rebels and a source close to the regime told AFP that the evac­u­a­tion had been sus­pended af­ter ob­jec­tions from the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. The source said Da­m­as­cus ob­jected to the num­ber of peo­ple leav­ing, claim­ing rebels had sought to raise it from 2,000 to 10,000. But Yasser AlYoussef, a po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cial from the Nured­din Al-Zinki rebel group, said the regime and its ally Iran were try­ing to add “new con­di­tions” to the agree­ment. “They want to link this deal to other is­sues, in­clud­ing the ar­eas of Fuaa and Kafraya,” he added, re­fer­ring to two gov­ern­ment-held Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity vil­lages in north­west­ern Syria that are un­der rebel siege.

Tur­key too ac­cused As­sad’s regime and its sup­port­ers of block­ing the deal. French Pres­i­dent Francois Hol­lande joined Wash­ing­ton’s call for in­ter­na­tional ob­servers to be sent in to over­see the evac­u­a­tion. Hol­lande said those trapped by the fight­ing should “be evac­u­ated in a dig­ni­fied and safe man­ner, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of in­ter­na­tional ob­servers and in the pres­ence of hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions.” Be­fore the fight­ing re­sumed, crowds of civil­ians could be seen gath­ered in the streets of rebel ar­eas from the early hours, some clutch­ing bags of be­long­ings, to await evac­u­a­tion. Some had slept in the open, de­spite the cold and a fierce storm that brought heavy rain and high winds. Many were hun­gry, af­ter weeks with­out reg­u­lar meals be­cause of dwin­dling food sup­plies caused by the army’s siege. The evac­u­a­tion deal was an­nounced a month into an army op­er­a­tion that has seen the gov­ern­ment take more than 90 per­cent of the for­mer rebel strong­hold in east Aleppo. Tur­key, which has backed the op­po­si­tion, said those leav­ing would be taken to Idlib prov­ince, which is con­trolled by a powerful rebel al­liance that in­cludes AlQaeda’s for­mer af­fil­i­ate Fateh al-Sham Front.

The agree­ment came amid in­ter­na­tional con­cern about the plight of civil­ians in the city, and as the UN said it had re­ports of atroc­i­ties be­ing com­mit­ted by ad­vanc­ing gov­ern­ment forces. The UN has ex­pressed con­cern over al­le­ga­tions that men have gone miss­ing af­ter cross­ing to gov­ern­ment ar­eas, and yes­ter­day said it had cred­i­ble re­ports of at least 82 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 11 women and 13 chil­dren, be­ing ex­e­cuted in re­cent days. Aleppo, a cul­tural and eco­nomic hub sec­ond only to Da­m­as­cus in im­por­tance, had been split be­tween a rebel-con­trolled east and gov­ern­ment-held west since 2012. It was un­clear how many civil­ians re­mained in rebel ter­ri­tory, af­ter an es­ti­mated 130,000 fled to other parts of Aleppo dur­ing the gov­ern­ment ad­vance.

More than 465 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 62 chil­dren, have died in east Aleppo dur­ing the as­sault, the Ob­ser­va­tory said yes­ter­day in a new toll. An­other 142 civil­ians, among them 42 chil­dren, have been killed by rebel rocket fire on gov­ern­ment-held zones in the same pe­riod, the mon­i­tor said. More than 310,000 peo­ple have been killed since the Syr­ian con­flict be­gan, and over half the pop­u­la­tion has been dis­placed, with mil­lions be­com­ing refugees.

As­sad’s regime has en­joyed strong sup­port from Iran as well as Rus­sia and yes­ter­day of­fi­cials in Tehran hailed the “lib­er­a­tion” of Aleppo. Yahya Safavi, top for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, said im­pend­ing vic­tory in Aleppo showed that “Iran is the lead­ing power in the re­gion”. — AFP

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