After years of devastating war, days of increasing desperation and the collapse of one cease-fire, evacuations are underway in besieged eastern Aleppo.
Live images on Syrian state TV showed ambulances entering the rebel-held enclave on Thursday morning to evacuate the wounded. Aid groups confirm that evacuations have begun — despite reports of a brief burst of gunfire targeting ambulances.
NPR’s Alison Meuse reports from Beirut that the Red Cross and Red Crescent have entered the small section of the city where rebel forces have made their last stand. The International Committee of the Red Cross describes evacuations as “underway,” and The Guardian reports that multiple sources say the first wave of buses has left the rebel-held territory.
The evacuated residents are headed toward the northern rebel-held countryside, Alison reports.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — an independent, opposition-leaning group that provides information from within Syria — said a cease-fire took hold about 4 a.m. local time (9 p.m. Wednesday ET), bringing to an end the airstrikes and shelling that have devastated the city.
The cease-fire comes after a previously negotiated truce, brokered by Turkey and Russia and announced on Tuesday, fell apart before evacuations could begin.
Reuters and AP — citing Syrian state media and anonymous regime and rebel sources — say the initial plan was blocked by regime allies who demanded that the deal be changed to include aid for Foua and Kfraya, two villages under siege by rebel groups. (The wire services say Iran-backed militias were making the demands; Iran describes reports of its involvement as “propaganda,” The Guardian reports.)
On Thursday, as buses and ambulances headed to Aleppo for evacuations, separate convoys also headed to Foua and Kfraya to evacuate the wounded, according to Syrian state media and the wire services.
The new cease-fire deal seems to have mostly held, but it has not been smooth.
In Aleppo, witnesses reported that ambulances set to transfer the wounded came under brief fire. Reuters reports:
“In a video interview posted to journalists via an online messaging service, a man who said he was a civil defence worker said snipers had fired on people as they tried to open the road for the ambulances to pass a government checkpoint out of the rebel-held sector.
” ‘The ambulances were on the way to the crossing which was specified to us for evacuating people and the regime forces started to shoot at us … Even the men who tried to open the road with their trucks, they fired at them,’ the man in the video said.
“A Reuters witness in nearby government-held territory heard a burst of gunfire that lasted several minutes.”
Some 20 buses were also preparing to enter the area. The Associated Press reports:
“The evacuation, which is part of an agreement between rebels and the Syrian government for the pullout from opposition-held neighborhoods of fighters and civilians, is effectively Aleppo’s surrender to the government. The rebels have held to the eastern part of the city for four years, but their enclave rapidly evaporated in the past days and weeks in the face of a fierce Syrian government onslaught.”
As Alison reported on Morning Edition, many of those remaining in east Aleppo fear the government would imprison or persecute them if they fled to government-held territory. So the evacuation plan will send the Aleppo residents to rebel-held territory near the Turkish border.
“These areas are not safe, but they are large areas where people can at least have more freedom of movement,” Alison says.
“Keep in mind they’ve been living in a siege these past few months. They’ve been running out of food, they say, and medical supplies. And at least they will not be cornered in a small area and under bombardment.”