Syrian troops threaten to enter last sliver of rebel-held Aleppo

BEIRUT – Syrian government forces threatened Tuesday to storm the last opposition holdout in Aleppo, potentially complicating an internationally supported effort to evacuate thousands of civilians still trapped in the city.

The media of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an ally of President Bashar Assad that is fighting in Aleppo, said Syrian troops have issued their last call for people to leave the sliver of territory in the city’s eastern districts still in the hands of opposition forces.

As many as 25,000 people have been evacuated from the area since Thursday, Robert Mardini, regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Twitter.

Evacuations have been taking place since last week as part of an agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey, but disruptions have complicated the effort as thousands are still waiting to be bussed to the rebel-held province to the west.

The deal – seen as the only way to avoid a bloodbath – has surrendered to Assad’s government the eastern districts of the city that rebel fighters have held since 2012. That represents a major victory for the Syrian leader and his allies, including Russia and Iran.

Pro-government fighters, including militiamen from Hezbollah and Iran, temporarily halted the evacuations to demand that residents of two nearby Shiite villages under siege by rebels also be evacuated. Islamist rebels later burned those evacuation buses temporarily complicating the entire evacuation plan.

Opposition Syrians accuse government forces and allied militiamen of robbing and even executing a number of people as they have moved into the parts of eastern Aleppo once held by the rebels.

At the United Nations, the Security Council voted Monday to deploy international observers to monitor the evacuation routes in Aleppo, ending months of deadlock over the fate of the city as government forces closed in.

France’s envoy to the Security Council said he hoped the resolution would prevent Aleppo from turning into another Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian men and boys were massacred in 1995 as the town fell to Serb forces. But the text of the resolution allowed five days for the observers to arrive, suggesting that the mission may not get off the ground until the evacuation is complete.

The city has seen some of the fiercest fighting of Syria’s war. For much of it, Aleppo’s eastern districts had been the rebels’ most important stronghold.

Thousands of people remain camped out in what is left of the rebels’ Aleppo enclave – its streets shattered beyond recognition by shelling.

Photographs from the area on Sunday night showed fires on the streets as residents tried to keep warm. Temperatures drop below freezing at night, and many people are sleeping on sidewalks and in abandoned buildings.

Several residents disembarking from the evacuation buses in the early hours of Monday were bundled up in coats. Many were exhausted, frustrated and in tears, said Ahmad Dbis, a doctor coordinating a team welcoming the evacuees.

“These people came out of hell, but they are indignant at their treatment,” Dbis said. “They keep asking why people didn’t help them in Aleppo.”

The U.N. children’s agency said Monday that 47 children had arrived safely from an orphanage, some of them in critical condition because of injuries or dehydration.

As an addendum to the Aleppo evacuation deal, 10 buses carried civilians away from two Shiite villages long besieged by rebels – Fouaa and Kefraya in Idlib – on Monday morning, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the pan-Arab Mayadeen television station.

Featured Image: AP Photo

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