Rebel fighters are donning explosive belts and are prepared to fight if pro-government forces attempt to stop them leaving eastern Aleppo, according to the last journalist in the former rebel stronghold.
Video footage posted on Tuesday by Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US journalist who has been trapped in eastern Aleppo for weeks, showed a masked fighter wearing what appeared to be an explosive vest under his jacket and carrying a Kalashnikov weapon.
Kareem said that the fighters were preparing to leave Aleppo, following the evacuation already of about 25,000 people from the formerly rebel-held east of Syria’s largest city.
“This is an explosive belt. This is what a lot of the fighters are wearing because they don’t feel that they can trust the regime to keep its word that they will have safe passage to leave,” said Kareem.
“If they are stopped they are prepared for a fight.”
It was unclear from the footage who the fighter was affiliated with or whether the belt was genuine.
Kareem told MEE there were representatives of about 22 fighting groups still trapped in eastern Aleppo. He said there was a line of cars a kilometre long containing fighters and their families.
Most civilians had now left, although some injured residents and doctors and nurses remained behind.
“They feel like they were supposed to, as per the agreement with the other side, have all left this morning,” said Kareem.
“However they feel like they [the Syrian government forces and its allies] continue to renegotiate and this is frustrating them.”
Asked whether the move risked provoking pro-government forces, Kareem said the rebel fighters had “plenty of experience in terms of dealing with the regime and they simply do not trust them”.
“They think it is possible that they may be wanting to go through the crossing point and somewhere in there there is going to be some kind of trouble and if there is trouble they are certainly going to be ready for it,” he said.
Despite this, Kareem said the rebels were keen to leave and hand over eastern Aleppo to Syrian government forces.
“They are feeling there is potential for trouble. At the same time they are very keen to say that they do not want any trouble. They simply want to fulfill the agreement and hand over the city to the Assad forces and then they will leave.”
Under a deal agreed between rebels and the Syrian government and its allies, both fighters and civilians are guaranteed safe passage to rebel-held areas in Idlib province to the west.
The evacuation operation is being monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, while the United Nations Security Council on Monday voted to put monitors on the ground.
Evacuations were continuing from eastern Aleppo on Tuesday, although thousands of people are still believed to be waiting to leave.
A rebel official in Turkey told the Reuters news agency that even after thousands had left on Monday, only about half of the civilians who wanted to leave had done so.
However the Syrian army broadacast messages into eastern Aleppo on Tuesday, warning that it was poised to enter the area during the day and urging opposition fighters to speed up their evacuation.
The evacuations have started, stopped and started again several times over the past few days because of mutual distrust, and amid fears on the rebel side that the Syrian army and allied militias will not let fighters leave.
A parallel operation to evacuate the residents of two Shia-majority villages besieged by the rebels in Idlib was held up after fighters reportedly belonging to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, torched buses sent there to collect them.
Middle East Eye contributor Zouhir al-Shimale, who was evacuated on Monday, said that the bus on which he was travelling passed through checkpoints controlled by Russian and Iranian forces and by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
He said Russian soldiers climbed onboard buses to inspect whether evacuees had weapons with them.
“They were saying you can go back to the regime side and no one will harass you or arrest you but no one listened to them. People were just silent and we moved to the western countryside and no one got hurt or arrested.”
Meanwhile, bleak conditions await civilians arriving in Idlib from eastern Aleppo with aid workers warning that there is not enough shelter, food and medical supplies for the influx of new arrivals.[Source: Middle East Eye]