Russia says it will veto France's UN proposal for Aleppo evacuation observers

Russia says it will veto a French-drafted UN resolution demanding immediate access to besieged areas of Aleppo and “neutral monitoring” of an evacuation that would see thousands of civilians moved.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters before Security Council consultations on the draft resolution Sunday that Moscow has no problem with any kind of monitoring.

But he said the idea that monitors “should be told to go to wander around the ruins of eastern Aleppo without proper preparation and without informing everybody about what is going to happen — it has disaster written all over it.”

Churkin said Russia has “some very simple ideas” — which he refused to disclose — to put to council members, and that if they agree a resolution could be adopted Sunday.

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Humanitarian groups plan to transport those fleeing Aleppo to temporary camps on the outskirts of Idlib and the wounded to field hospitals. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

But France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said he intends to put the draft to a vote immediately after consultations and indicated he wouldn’t accept any changes.

The resolution calls on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately redeploy UN humanitarian staff already on the ground to carry out “neutral monitoring” and “direct observation and to report on evacuations.”

It stressed that evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to the destinations of their choice.

Evacuation buses torched

The evacuation to transfer out trapped civilians and fighters in eastern Aleppo, as well as two Syrian villages, was thrown into doubt on Sunday when assailants torched six buses assigned to the operation.

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A man on a motorcycle drives past burning buses that were en route to evacuate ill and injured people from the besieged Syrian villages of al-Foua and Kefraya when they were torched in Idlib province. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

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 al-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.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated group blamed for attacks

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.

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The buses that were set ablaze on Sunday were to take part in the evacuation of over 2,000 wounded and sick Syrians from the villages of Foua and Kfarya in northwest Idlib province. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

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 Shia 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.

Evacuation -- Aleppo, Syria -- Dec. 17, 2016

A child sleeps while waiting to be evacuated with others from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria on Saturday. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

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. 

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