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Civilian convoy ‘attacked’ as evacuation starts

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Militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have reportedly killed at least one person and injured more while firing on a convoy of injured evacuees from the remaining rebel-held pockets of east Aleppo as part of a ceasefire.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday morning, Ibrahim Abu Allaith of the Syrian Civil Defence said that one person was killed when pro-government militias opened fire. At least four more were injured, among them a medical worker.

Zouhir Al Shimale, an independent journalist in east Aleppo, said the evacuation was still underway despite the attacks.

“There hasn’t been fighting since the morning,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that “hundreds of families” have gathered at the departure point for the buses.

Earlier on Thursday, the convoy began a journey which is intended to take patients through government territory into the rebel-held western Aleppo countryside as agreed in an evacuation deal this week.

“Civilians are given the choice to stay or leave – if they stay, they’ll be under regime control. Most of the people want to go because they are afraid of potential massacres by the regime,” Shimale added.

“In recent days, people are desperate to get to somewhere where we have the supplies – food, medicine, fuel – like we used to have in the days before the siege. Even if they are in refugee camps, but people still want to leave the besieged area.”

As part of the agreement, the Russian defence ministry said on Thursday morning that it was preparing for the transfer of rebel fighters by buses and ambulances to Idlib city, located some 65 kilometres (around 40 miles) from Aleppo.

Deadly fighting broke out on Wednesday after a similar truce deal collapsed.

Under the initial plan, thousands of civilians and rebel fighters were due early on Wednesday to evacuate the east of Syria’s second city, scene of some of the worst violence in more than five years of war across the country.

The delay came on Wednesday morning when pro-government Shia militias demanded that civilians in Kafraya and al-Fua – two towns besieged by armed opposition groups – be evacuated, as well.
Thursday’s agreement will reportedly allow for the evacuation of injured residents from the two towns.

‘Dead lying in the street’

Turkey said it would meet with Russia and Iran in Moscow on December 27 to discuss a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Syria’s army has pressed a month-long assault that has seen it take more than 90 percent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.

Turkey has said those leaving would be taken to Idlib province, which is controlled by a powerful rebel alliance that includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Sharif Nashashibi, a writer and Middle East analyst, said the Syrian government’s advances in Aleppo had created “a sense of emboldenment” among government forces and their allies.

“No doubt this is a big blow to the opposition, but this isn’t a prelude to outright victory as the regime and its supporters are portraying it,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It’s fanciful to think Assad can just roll on and take the whole country. Even if he managed, it would be on the backs of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces.”

Summary executions

The UN said on Tuesday that it had credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed in recent days.

And the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria said it had received reports opposition fighters were blocking civilians from fleeing Aleppo and using them as human shields.

Aleppo, a cultural and economic hub second only to Damascus in importance, had been split between a rebel-controlled east and government-held west since 2012.

It was unclear how many civilians remained in rebel territory, after an estimated 130,000 fled to other parts of Aleppo during the government advance since mid-November.

Syria’s conflict has evolved from largely unarmed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into a full-scale civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than half of the country’s prewar population.

Marwan Kabalan, a Syria analyst and associate political analyst at the Doha Institute, said he expects the Syrian government to focus its attacks on the Damascus suburbs after the fall of Aleppo.

“I think the regime will turn next to targeting the Damascus suburbs,” he told Al Jazeera. “Idlib is becoming a point of exile for fighters … I think it will remain like this till the very end [of the conflict].”

Throughout four years of fighting, Aleppo has seen intense battles that left much of the city in ruins.

AlHakam Shaar, a research fellow at the Budapest-based Aleppo Project, an initiative that tracks the destruction in the historic city, explained that more than 20 percent of Aleppo’s buildings were fully destroyed and another 40 percent partially damaged as far back as early 2014.

“The percentages are far higher now. However, there is no way to accurately measure the extent of destruction without a full on the ground survey,” he told Al Jazeera.

“There will also be a need for planning the rehabilitation of whole systems of infrastructure, from roads to water networks.”

[Source: Al Jazeera]
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