Turkey steps up Aleppo evacuation efforts

Bassem Mroue, Associated Press

Beirut — The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed on Friday, saying that rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave, state TV reported.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the suspension would last or whether it would delay the cease-fire deal under which tens of thousands of residents and rebel fighters are being evacuated to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process likely to take several days.

Turkey’s foreign minister says 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from Aleppo and that he has intensively reached out to Tehran in a bid to keep the process on track.

Speaking in Ankara on Friday, Mevlut Cavusoglu said there had been a “hold up with the latest convoy” and that he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, “in an effort to overcome this.”

Cavusoglu said other officials, including Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were speaking to their Russian and Iranian equivalents as well as the different players of the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed on Friday, saying that rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave.

Turkish state-media is blaming Iran, which is active in the Syrian conflict and the frontline of Aleppo, for the flare up of hostilities that held up the convoy.

Cavusoglu blamed the Syrian regime which has the backing of Moscow and Tehran. Ankara is one of many to say Assad’s regime has committed war crimes in Aleppo and in the course of the Syrian conflict.

He said those who evacuated Aleppo since the start of the process on Thursday were civilians and suggested that they wanted to remain inside Syria, where Turkey is raising tented camps to accommodate them.

The minister re-iterated that his country would take in the most vulnerable — including the old, children and sick — but would consider allowing more in later if “there’s a need.”

“But it looks like those people, with the hope of returning to Aleppo one day, want to remain within Syria even if there are safer areas available,” he told reporters.

The U.N. health agency’s top official in Syria says negotiations are underway in hopes of resuming evacuations from rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo.

Elizabeth Hoff, the Syria representative for the World Health Organization, says that the agency knows “there are a large number of women and children, and there are others, who are still inside and want to get out.”

She spoke by phone on Friday with the Associated Press from government-controlled western Aleppo, after Russia’s military claimed that all women and children had been taken out of eastern Aleppo during evacuations that began a day earlier involving WHO help.

Hoff says that “negotiations are ongoing” through the office of the U.N. envoy for Syria to try to restart the evacuations. She says she has no indication that the evacuations have been completed.

Earlier on Friday, as the evacuations resumed for a second day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a major new Syria peace initiative, saying he and his Turkish counterpart are working to set up peace talks between Damascus and the opposition in Kazakhstan.

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, the Syrian TV also claimed that the rebels had tried to take with them captives they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave during bitter battles to defend their territory from a ferocious, weeks-long onslaught by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.

Lebanon’s Al-Manar Hezbollah TV said the Syrian army stopped the evacuation process because the rebels had violated the cease-fire deal. Hezbollah militiamen are fighting in the Syrian conflict alongside Assad’s forces.

The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV said buses that were parked at the Ramouseh crossing point had left the area after it was targeted by gunmen.

Speaking on a visit to Japan, Putin said that the negotiations would take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and that he and Erdogan are also working for an overall truce in Syria. Putin said Ankara had helped broker the rebel exit from Aleppo that is currently underway.

However, the Western-backed Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the location Putting had proposed for e negotiations.

On Friday morning, dozens of green public buses and ambulances were parked in the southern Aleppo neighborhood of Ramouseh to evacuate more people from eastern Aleppo. Syrian state TV showed a truck with dozens of men, driving through the corridor leading the rebel-held parts of the surrounding provinces.

The TV said that since the early hours of the day, four convoys have left Aleppo. It said some of the evacuees were using their own vehicles to leave.

There have been contradicting numbers of how many people have been evacuated from Aleppo on Thursday. Syrian state TV reported than more than 9,000 people were evacuated on Thursday alone in Aleppo. The TV said the evacuees included 3,475 men, 3,137 women, 2,359 children and 108 wounded people.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said about 4,000 civilians were taken out on Thursday. Syrian state news agency says 2,300 opposition fighters and their families left Aleppo the previous night.

Russia, a key Assad ally, says that more than 6,462 people, including more than 3,000 rebels and 301 wounded, have been taken out.

For the opposition, the evacuation was a humiliating defeat. A smiling Assad called it a historic event comparable to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran.

The Lebanon-based pan-Arab TV stations Al-Mayadeen interviewed an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the central province of Hama who said that buses and ambulances are waiting to evacuate thousands of people two Shiite villages besieged by rebels — a last-minute condition that became part of the cease-fire deal for Aleppo.

The SARC official said they will likely begin the evacuation of 15,000 people from Foua and Kefraya adding that the priority will be for the wounded, elderly people, women, children and those with chronic illnesses.

State TV said 110 buses and 19 medical teams were being ready to take those being evacuated from the two Shiite villages. Iran had demanded to tie the evacuations from Foua and Kefraya with Aleppo’s.

Separately, Hezbollah’s media arm said Syrian government supporters closed the road used by evacuees form Aleppo, demanding the wounded from the two villages be allowed to leave.