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Evacuations from Aleppo fail to materialize amid lull

Sarah el Deeb
Associated Press

Beirut — A cease-fire to allow wounded civilians and rebels to leave besieged parts of Aleppo has been extended into the weekend by Russia, but hoped-for medical evacuations didn’t materialize by Friday evening because of a lack of security guarantees, officials and residents said.

The dawn-to-dusk “humanitarian pause” that began Thursday will last into Saturday on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, said Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, speaking in Moscow. It had been due to expire Friday.

The lull had been greeted with high hopes by U.N. officials, and the Syrian government opened a new corridor for those wanting to flee the neighborhoods shattered by weeks of Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

But by Friday evening, no evacuations were seen along the corridor, reflecting the intractable nature of Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N.’s humanitarian aid agency, described an “astronomically difficult situation,” although he declined to specify who was responsible for the breakdown.

He told reporters in Geneva that the evacuations couldn’t begin “because the necessary conditions were not in place to ensure safe, secure and voluntary” movement of people.

A U.N. official told The Associated Press that Syrian opposition fighters were blocking the evacuations because the Syrian government and Russia were not holding up their end of the deal and were impeding deliveries of medical and humanitarian supplies into Aleppo.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity pending release of an official statement, said intensive efforts were under way in Damascus, Aleppo, Geneva and Gaziantep, Turkey, to try to move forward on the evacuations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said al-Qaida-linked militants in Aleppo were refusing to leave the city along the corridors created by the Russians and Syrian forces “despite the gestures of goodwill from Moscow and Damascus,” he told reporters in the Russian capital.

Militants from the al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front are believed to make up a minority of the several thousand fighters in the besieged district.

Rudskoi, of the Russian Defense Ministry, accused militants of firing at humanitarian corridors and using the break to prepare for an offensive.

“The terrorists are doing everything to prevent civilians and the militants from leaving eastern Aleppo,” he said. “All our requests to the American colleagues to put the pressure on the so-called moderate opposition to persuade them to end the shelling . . . have been left unanswered.”