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Syrian rebel says new deal reached to secure Aleppo evacuation – sources

Officials from the Syrian government or the military alliance fighting in support of it could not be reached for immediate comment.

Buses are seen during an evacuation operation of Syrian rebel fighters and civilians from a opposition-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo’s province on 16 December, 2016. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT – A new deal has been reached to complete the evacuation of rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo which stalled over demands from pro-government forces that two villages besieged by rebels must also be evacuated, a Syrian rebel told news channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath on Saturday.

Rebel official Al-Farouk Abu Bakr, speaking from Aleppo, said the deal comprised an evacuation from the two Shi’ite villages besieged by insurgents, the evacuation of wounded people from two towns besieged by pro-government forces near the Lebanese border, and the full evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

Officials from the Syrian government or the military alliance fighting in support of it could not be reached for immediate comment.

Abu Bakr did not say how many people would be evacuated from the two Shi’ite villages, al-Foua and Kefraya.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.

Russia said the Syrian army had established control over all districts of eastern Aleppo, although government troops were suppressing isolated areas where rebel fighters continued to resist.

Rebel sources said pro-government Shi’ite militias had opened fire on a convoy carrying evacuees from east Aleppo and robbing them. A Syrian military source denied the accusations but said the convoy was turned back.

“We returned them to their places,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said a group of ambulances and cars containing hundreds of civilians and fighters were stopped by pro-government gunmen at a checkpoint south-west of Aleppo. They later returned to the enclave.

Rebels in eastern Aleppo went on high alert after pro-government forces prevented civilians from leaving and deployed heavy weaponry on the road out of the area, a Syrian rebel commander in the city said.

A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups.

But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebel groups in nearby Idlib province, should also be evacuated.

Iran, one of Syria’s main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a ceasefire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said.

A Syrian rebel source said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, was the last rebel group to agree to let injured people out of the villages. But a Nusra source denied this.

The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of the war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on each side.

Though both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi’ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow’s efforts to broker the evacuation of eastern Aleppo.

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