Aleppo evacuation delayed, shelling and bombing resume

Shelling and airstrikes resumed over Aleppo on Wednesday, ending the beleaguered Syrian city’s latest ceasefire after less than 24 hours and stalling efforts to evacuate residents from the shrinking rebel enclave in its eastern neighbourhoods. 

“There is fierce bombardment by the regime forces on besieged Aleppo, using artillery, tanks and mortars,” a Turkey-based official in the Jabha Shamiya faction told Reuters, citing reports from the ground.

Bombing raids had also resumed by shortly after noon, local time, according to Syrian activists who spoke to The Associated Press. 

Warplanes ”began to strike as if there’s no such thing as a ‘ceasefire’ or ‘evacuation of civilians,’” said activist Mahmoud Raslan.

Raslan said the bombing is a de facto announcement that “they are going to kill us all.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if the planes were with the Syrian government or its ally Russia, which brokered the ceasefire.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said the rebels had broken the agreement, while a legal adviser close to the opposition forces blamed pro-government fighters from Iran.

Aleppo shelling1:21

“It is clear that the Russians can’t get Iran to abide by the deal,” Abu Zayd told The Associated Press.

Freelance journalist Zouhir Al Shimale has been reporting on the renewed attacks via Twitter from within eastern Aleppo. 

“The attacks have been very intensified,” he says in one video, over the sound of explosions and shouting. 

“We’ve counted more than 15 artillery attacks and heavy, launched bombs” in one hour, he said. 

The attacks broke out not long after the evacuation failed to start as planned. 

A military official in the pro-Assad alliance had said efforts were due to start at 5 a.m. local time, while opposition officials had been expecting a first group of wounded people to leave earlier.

However, none had left by dawn, according to a Reuters witness waiting at the agreed point of departure. Twenty buses were waiting there with their engines running but showed no sign of moving into the rebel-held districts.

Media reports later said the buses had returned to their depots. 

People in eastern Aleppo have been packing their bags and burning personal possessions as they prepare to leave, fearing looting by the Syrian army and the Iranian-backed militias when they restore control.

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Buses wait to evacuate people from a rebel pocket in Aleppo, in the government-controlled al-Hamadaniah Stadium on Wednesday. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

ISIS retakes Palmyra

The UN said it was not involved with the evacuation, but was ready to help.

“[The UN] stands ready to facilitate the voluntary and safe evacuation of injured, sick and vulnerable civilians from the besieged part of the city,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said in a statement.

The evacuation follows two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense airstrikes and artillery fire.

Rebel groups have been supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but the support they have enjoyed has fallen far short of the direct military backing given to Assad by Russia and Iran.

Russia’s decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad’s favour after rebel advances across key areas of western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.

However, Assad is far from taking back all of Syria. Wide areas of the country remain in the hands of armed groups including ISIS, which this week managed to retake the desert city of Palmyra from Syria’s army.

Major victory 

Russia regards the fall of Aleppo as a major victory against terrorists, as it and Assad characterize all the rebel groups, both Islamist and nationalist, fighting to oust him. But at the United Nations, the United States said the violence in the city, besieged and bombarded for months, represented “modern evil.”

The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed the rise of ISIS.

As the battle for Aleppo unfolded, global concern has risen over the plight of the 250,000 civilians who were thought to remain in its rebel-held eastern sector before the sudden army advance began at the end of November.

Tens of thousands of them fled to parts of the city held by the government or by a Kurdish militia, and tens of thousands more retreated further into the rebel enclave as it rapidly shrank under the army’s lightning advance.

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Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stand inside the Umayyad mosque, in the government-controlled area of Aleppo on Wednesday. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

UN alleges ‘slaughter’

The rout of rebels from their shrinking territory in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity.” There were food and water shortages in rebel areas, with all hospitals closed.

On Tuesday, the United Nations voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter.”

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said Rupert Colville, a UN spokesman. “There could be many more.”

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people in east Aleppo as human shields.”

Fear stalked the city’s streets. Some survivors trudged in the rain past dead bodies to the government-held west or the few districts still in rebel hands. Others stayed in their homes and awaited the Syrian army’s arrival.

For all of them, fear of arrest, conscription or summary execution added to the daily terror of bombardment.

“People are saying the troops have lists of families of fighters and are asking them if they had sons with the terrorists. [They are] then either left or shot and left to die,” said Abu Malek al-Shamali in Seif al-Dawla, one of the last rebel-held districts.

Terrible conditions were described by city residents. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. “There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

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A member of the Syrian pro-government forces walks in eastern Aleppo. (AFP/Getty Images)

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