Aleppo evac­u­a­tion halted

Gun­fire erupts as regime, rebels trade blame

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

BEIRUT: The evac­u­a­tion of east­ern Aleppo stalled yesterday af­ter an erup­tion of gun­fire, as the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and rebels threw ac­cu­sa­tions at each other, rais­ing fears that a peace­ful sur­ren­der of the op­po­si­tion en­clave could fall apart with thou­sands of peo­ple be­lieved to be still in­side.

The gov­ern­ment sus­pended the evac­u­a­tion, pulling out buses that had been fer­ry­ing out peo­ple Fri­day morn­ing and the day be­fore, af­ter re­ports of shoot­ing at a cross­ing point into the en­clave. The for­eign min­is­ter of Turkey, a backer of the rebels, said he was in talks with his coun­ter­part in Iran, a top ally of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, to try to get the process back on track.

The sus­pen­sion demon­strated the fragility of the cease-fire deal un­der which civil­ians and fight­ers in­side the few re­main­ing blocks of the rebel en­clave in Aleppo were to be taken to op­po­si­tion-held ter­ri­tory nearby. It ap­peared to be linked to a sep­a­rate evac­u­a­tion to re­move thou­sands of peo­ple from two gov­ern­ment-held vil­lages be­sieged by the rebels. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment says those evac­u­a­tions and that in east­ern Aleppo must be car­ried out at the same time un­der the cease­fire deal, but the rebels say there is no con­nec­tion.

Syr­ian state me­dia said rebels shelled a road that was sup­posed to be used by peo­ple evac­u­at­ing from these two vil­lages. The op­po­si­tion’s Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, how­ever, said the Iran-backed Hezbol­lah fight­ers had cut the road to protest a lack of progress in the evac­u­a­tions from Foua and Kfarya. Buses that ar­rived at a col­lec­tion point in Hama coun­try­side to pick up peo­ple evac­u­at­ing from the vil­lages waited for hours with­out any evac­u­a­tions hap­pen­ing.

Later yesterday, two rebel spokes­men privy to the talks said the fight­ers be­sieg­ing the two Shi­ite vil­lages, in­clud­ing al-Qaida linked mil­i­tant group Fatah al-Sham Front, have agreed to evac­u­ate sev­eral hun­dred wounded from the Shi­ite vil­lages. If it hap­pens, this may lead to the re­sump­tion of evac­u­a­tion from Aleppo.

There were dif­fer­ing re­ports on how many peo­ple had been evac­u­ated from the en­clave and how many re­mained in­side, who would be in dan­ger of be­ing caught in the cross­fire if the cease-fire falls apart. Re­ports by op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and of­fi­cials in east­ern Aleppo ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 civil­ians still in­side the tiny en­clave, along with some 6,000 fight­ers.

The evac­u­a­tions seal the end of the Syr­ian rebels’ most im­por­tant strong­hold - the east­ern part of the city of Aleppo - and mark a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the coun­try’s civil war, now in its sixth year. In an­nounc­ing the sus­pen­sions, Syr­ian state TV also claimed that the rebels had tried to take cap­tives with them, ones they had seized and were hold­ing in the rebel en­clave from bit­ter bat­tles to de­fend their ter­ri­tory from a fe­ro­cious, weeks-long on­slaught by Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s troops.

BEIRUT: They fled Aleppo from dif­fer­ent dis­tricts and at dif­fer­ent stages of Syria’s civil war, seek­ing refuge abroad. Now, for refugees who sup­ported the op­po­si­tion, Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad’s vic­tory has dashed hopes of ever go­ing home. Even as the up­ris­ing in Aleppo and cities across Syria de­scended into con­flict, sev­eral for­mer res­i­dents in­ter­viewed by Reuters said they had hoped there could still be change, a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment and a chance to re­turn.

But as As­sad re­asserts con­trol af­ter the army and its al­lies routed rebels in Aleppo, these Syr­i­ans liv­ing in ex­ile fear that a new crack­down that will in­clude ar­rests and ex­e­cu­tions, and be worse than any­thing wit­nessed pre-war. “If I go back, I’ll be ex­e­cuted,” said Ab­dul­hamid Zughbi, a 30-year-old who fled be­sieged east­ern re­bel­held Aleppo ear­lier this year for Turkey, seek­ing med­i­cal treat­ment for his wife and in­fant son.

“I can’t even think about re­turn­ing as long as the As­sad regime is still in power. It’s im­pos­si­ble for any­one from the op­po­si­tion,” he said. Nearly 5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans have fled the coun­try in a con­flict that has killed more than 300,000 peo­ple and pit­ted mul­ti­ple war­ring sides against each other, in­clud­ing ji­hadists who have come to dom­i­nate the in­sur­gency in many ar­eas.

The per­ma­nent dis­place­ment of mil­lions of Syr­i­ans is one way in which its war and oth­ers in the re­gion are caus­ing ir­re­versible changes. Most refugees are in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries in­clud­ing Turkey and Le­banon, and hun­dreds of thou­sands have gone to Europe.

Some will see As­sad’s win in Aleppo and other gains he has made with Rus­sian and Ira­nian sup­port as a chance to re­turn and re­build their lives - but not those in­volved in dis­sent when protests be­gan in 2011.

Zughbi took part, then worked for years in med­i­cal aid and res­cue in rebel-held east­ern Aleppo. “My wife was lightly wounded in shelling and my son was ill. I thought I’d take them to Turkey and come back. “That day, they closed the road, and I couldn’t re­turn,” he said, re­fer­ring to when gov­ern­ment forces sealed off the rebel-held part of the city in Au­gust. They be­sieged it for months and then made a light­ning ad­vance to drive in­sur­gents out of most of their ar­eas they held in a mat­ter of weeks.

‘ar­rests have just be­gun’

As res­i­dents have poured out of rebel dis­tricts, in­clud­ing into ar­eas un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, the army has be­gun mak­ing ar­rests, Zughbi said. “The ar­rests have just be­gun. They de­tain the more prom­i­nent peo­ple (ac­tivists) on the spot ... but for oth­ers - now they (the gov­ern­ment) have the time, they’ll in­ves­ti­gate and then ar­rest them at a later stage.

“A friend of mine went to a gov­ern­men­theld area and three days later they de­tained him.” The United Na­tions voiced deep con­cern about re­ports of Syr­ian sol­diers and al­lied Iraqi fight­ers sum­mar­ily shoot­ing dead 82 peo­ple in east Aleppo dis­tricts this week - ac­cu­sa­tions de­nied by the army and the Iraqi mili­tia in ques­tion. As­sad’s op­po­nents ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of mass ar­rests and forced con­scrip­tion. A Syr­ian mil­i­tary source de­nied ar­rests but said iden­ti­ties of peo­ple leav­ing rebel-held ar­eas were be­ing checked and any­one who was un­known was be­ing put into “spe­cific places” in ar­eas where civil­ians were gath­ered. The army says Syr­i­ans eli­gi­ble for mil­i­tary ser­vice must serve.

For Abu Rakan, a 51-year-old refugee liv­ing in Le­banon, the death of his brother in law, a rebel fighter, and dis­ap­pear­ance just days ago of his sis­ter have un­der­scored the dan­ger for any­one linked to the op­po­si­tion. “If we go back, it’ll be more dan­ger­ous than be­fore. Any­one with the op­po­si­tion is in dan­ger.

“We’ve lived with this regime for 40 years. We know how it be­haves, what it does,” he said, re­fer­ring also to As­sad’s fa­ther and for­mer pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad, who crushed left­ist and Is­lamist chal­lenges to his rule.

Abu Rakan said he would only re­turn to Syria un­der a “full national rec­on­cil­i­a­tion”, and if there were a freely elected gov­ern­ment in place and a new con­sti­tu­tion - all of which look more than dis­tant than ever. Hala, an ac­tivist who left gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Aleppo in 2014, said she would not trust any set­tle­ment be­tween the gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion - As­sad had to go. “There’s no way I can go back while the As­sad regime is there,” said the 37-year-old, who now lives in Beirut and works for a Syr­ian cit­i­zen­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion.

mis­er­able ex­ile

“Even if there was a kind of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, we wouldn’t be able to live there. The op­pres­sion that ex­isted be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion will mul­ti­ply. “When the rev­o­lu­tion be­gan we were able to ex­press our views and to live more freely. Even if we weren’t ar­rested, we can’t go back, know­ing it will be just like it was,” she said.—Reuters

— AFP

A trac­tor car­ry­ing peo­ple who were evac­u­ated from rebel-held neigh­bor­hoods in the em­bat­tled city of Aleppo ar­rives in the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Khan Al-Aas­sal re­gion, west of the em­bat­tled city yesterday. (See Page 7)

IDLIB: Turk­ish medics carry a wounded Syr­ian woman, evac­u­ated from Aleppo, to a field hos­pi­tal near Idlib, Syria yesterday. Turkey’s For­eign Min­is­ter Mev­lut Cavu­soglu said 7,500 civil­ians have been evac­u­ated from the Syr­ian city of Aleppo and that he has reached out to Tehran in a bid to keep the process on track.—AP

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