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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Another Aleppo Cease-fire, Mass Evacuations Said to Be Imminent

By VOA News December 14, 2016

Syrian rebels said late Wednesday that a new agreement has been reached to evacuate civilians and wounded war victims from eastern Aleppo, and that refugees are expected to begin leaving the rebel-held sector within hours.

Rebel sources in Aleppo and U.N. workers in the area confirmed the report of a new cease-fire, but Syrian government officials said they were unaware of any agreement, and that negotiations were still underway. If the evacuation proceeds, the end of resistance in Aleppo would mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the principal target of rebels throughout the country.

A halt in fighting in Aleppo had been advertised for Wednesday, but the deal collapsed before any refugees could leave the besieged rebel sector, and renewed fighting raged through the rubble that makes up most of the city, once Syria's largest urban area.

Cold and hungry civilians caught in the war zone of eastern Aleppo had gathered before dawn in the hope of escaping to safety, but instead they were plunged back into a familiar nightmare.

"Bombing is ongoing. No one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified," activist Mohammad al-Khatib told a reporter who made contact with him in eastern Aleppo. "The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try to retrieve the bodies."

Specter of 'war crimes'

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein said the resumption of fighting early Wednesday was appalling, and that "the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the Syrian government forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians ... most likely constitutes war crimes."

Zeid demanded that the Syrian government provide medical aid to residents of Aleppo wounded during the bombardment, as required by international law, and said, "The way this deal was dangled in front of this battered and beleaguered population – causing them to hope they might indeed live to see another day – and then snatched away just half a day later is also outrageously cruel."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that collects reports about the prolonged civil war, said there were "very intense clashes on every front line," both in rebel-held and government-controlled parts of the city. Casualties were reported on both sides.

How new deal came about

Members of the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group told the French news agency the new cease-fire deal was reached through negotiations between the Russian military, which is fighting on the side of the Syrian government, and the Turkish Red Crescent Society.

Other reports said Iran, another major supporter of the Assad regime, held up the new cease-fire agreement until it had assurances that evacuations from Aleppo would be carried out simultaneously with the rescue of wounded people in two Shi'ite villages under siege by rebel forces.

Abdul Salaam Abdul Razak, a military spokesman for the Nureddin al-Zinki group, said evacuations from the villages in Idlib province were confirmed late Wednesday, assuring the exodus from eastern Aleppo could begin at dawn Thursday.

An official of another rebel group, Jabha Shamiya, told Reuters about 1,000 wounded people were expected to leave Aleppo first, and that the entire evacuation could be completed within three days.

Trading blame

Russia blamed the rebels for breaking the cease-fire early Wednesday, allegedly by attacking Syrian government positions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was Syrian government forces that began the attack.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, spoke by phone Wednesday afternoon and Lavrov told Kerry the Syrian government was willing to provide a safe exit for civilians and rebel fighters, but the rebels refused to adhere to the cease-fire, according to a statement from the Russian foreign ministry.

Russia, which backs Assad, and Turkey, which supports rebels who want to oust him, brokered the deal, which also set up the evacuations that were expected to begin early Wednesday.

Aleppo has been the subject of numerous efforts to bring a halt in fighting and to get aid to thousands of people in need of food and medicine. But repeatedly those initiatives, including brokered cease-fires by countries such as Russia, the United States and Turkey, have fallen apart.

According to Russia U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the plan that was agreed to Tuesday then collapsed Wednesday called for most of the remaining opposition fighters in Aleppo to move to Idlib, a city of 165,000 residents 60 kilometers away. The reports late Wednesday that said the Aleppo cease-fire and evacuation plan had been revived did mention that rebel fighters would be allowed to leave the shattered city, but there were no precise details.

Mehmet Simsek, Turkey's deputy prime minister, said on Twitter his country would set up a tent city to accommodate as many as 80,000 refugees fleeing Aleppo.

Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday that his country, Russia and Iran would hold a summit in late December in the hope of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Cavusoglu told an interviewer for the private Turkish channel TGRT the summit would take place December 27 in Moscow.

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