As­sailants set fire to Syria evac­u­a­tion buses

Could bust deal to move in­jured from east Aleppo

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY PHILIP ISSA

BEIRUT | A del­i­cately timed evac­u­a­tion deal in­volv­ing trapped civil­ians and fight­ers in war-rav­aged east Aleppo and two Syr­ian vil­lages was thrown into doubt Sun­day when as­sailants torched six buses as­signed to the op­er­a­tion.

The buses were to take part in the evac­u­a­tion of over 2,000 wounded and sick Syr­i­ans from Foua and Kfarya, two rebel-be­sieged vil­lages that have re­mained loyal to the govern­ment in an area un­der op­po­si­tion con­trol in the north­west Idlib prov­ince, ac­tivists and govern­ment me­dia re­ported.

The bus burn­ings could scut­tle a wider deal to evac­u­ate thou­sands of vul­ner­a­ble civil­ians and fight­ers from the op­po­si­tion’s last foothold in Aleppo and re­turn the city en­tirely to govern­ment con­trol.

Evac­u­a­tions from Aleppo had been halted amid mu­tual re­crim­i­na­tions Fri­day, af­ter sev­eral thou­sand trapped civil­ians had al­ready been moved from the city. The sus­pen­sion of the evac­u­a­tions had thrown an Aleppo deal bro­kered by Rus­sia and Turkey last week into dis­ar­ray.

That deal marked a turn­ing point in the coun­try’s war. With the op­po­si­tion leav­ing Aleppo, Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad has ef­fec­tively re­asserted his con­trol over Syria’s five largest cities and its Mediter­ranean coast nearly six years af­ter a national move­ment to un­seat him took hold.

The op­po­si­tion’s Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said the al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Fatah al-Sham Front was be­hind Sun­day’s as­sault on the buses. The in­sur­gent group had been drag­ging its feet over ap­prov­ing the evac­u­a­tion deal.

Hezbol­lah, the Le­banese mil­i­tant group fight­ing along­side Syria’s govern­ment, said the buses were burned dur­ing fight­ing be­tween Fatah al-Sham and a rebel group that sup­ported the evac­u­a­tions.

Most res­i­dents of the two vil­lages are Shi­ite Mus­lims, while the most pow­er­ful anti-govern­ment groups in Idlib are hard-line Sun­nis.

The iden­tity of the group be­hind the at­tack re­mains un­clear. A video show­ing armed men cir­cling the burn­ing buses did not re­veal their af­fil­i­a­tion.

“The buses that came to evac­u­ate the apos­tates have been burned,” de­clared the nar­ra­tor of the video, as cel­e­bra­tory gun­shots rang through the air. He warned that no “Shi­ite pigs” would be al­lowed to leave the towns.

The video could not be ver­i­fied in­de­pen­dently, but was in line with AP re­port­ing from the area.

A coali­tion of rebel groups dis­avowed the bus burn­ing as a “reck­less at­tack,” say­ing it en­dan­gered tens of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans trapped in Aleppo. No group has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for burn­ing the buses.

Ear­lier in the day, dozens of buses and am­bu­lances were poised to en­ter east Aleppo to re­sume evac­u­at­ing rebel fight­ers and civil­ians from the op­po­si­tion’s re­main­ing dis­tricts, pro-Syr­ian govern­ment me­dia said. But the evac­u­a­tions re­mained on hold at night­fall.

The In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, which has over­seen the Aleppo evac­u­a­tions, had no com­ment Sun­day on their pos­si­ble re­sump­tion. The agency has said thou­sands of peo­ple, among them women, chil­dren, the sick and the wounded, re­main trapped in be­sieged ar­eas of the city, wait­ing in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures for the evac­u­a­tions to re­sume.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Ac­tivists said mil­i­tants have burned at least five buses as­signed to evac­u­ate wounded and sick peo­ple from two vil­lages in north­ern Syria. The in­ci­dents could scut­tle a wider deal to evac­u­a­tion of thou­sands from east Aleppo.

The Aleppo evac­u­a­tion was sus­pended Fri­day af­ter a re­port of shoot­ing at a cross­ing point into the en­clave by both sides of the con­flict.

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