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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Syria Suspends Aleppo Evacuation

By VOA News December 16, 2016

The Syrian government suspended the evacuation of civilians from eastern Aleppo Friday after blasts and gunfire were hard in parts of the city and both rebels and government forces accused the other of breaking the fragile cease-fire agreement.

The Syrian government ordered trucks and buses that had been carrying people out of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo to turn around as the army set up roadblocks along the highway that had been used in the evacuation.

Turkey, which has been heavily involved in the Aleppo peace process, said the suspensions are temporary.

"The evacuations are not over and many people still want to leave the area," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Trading blame

Syria's government says the rebels broke the agreement by trying to smuggle heavy weapons and hostages out of Aleppo. The rebels, though, accused the government of suspending the evacuation as a way to pressure them into releasing civilians from two government-held Shi'ite villages currently under siege by the rebels.

The government says the evacuations in the Foua and Kfarya villages must coincide with those in eastern Aleppo, but the rebels say the two are unrelated.

It is not clear when the evacuations will resume.

Russia's Defense Ministry, however, says the evacuation is "complete" and, "All of the women and children have been moved from the rebel-controlled neighborhoods." The ministry says only "radical and intransigent" militants remain.

Peace talks

Earlier, Russia's president said his country is working with Turkey to start a new round of peace talks on Syria with a goal of a nationwide cease-fire.

Speaking Friday during a visit to Japan, Vladimir Putin said he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan propose holding negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition, possibly to take place in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

His comments came as more civilians prepared to leave the destroyed city of Aleppo after thousands of people fled Thursday under the cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that essentially ceded what has been a divided city to Syrian government control.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday at a rally in Pennsylvania the United States would create "safe zones" in Syria. "We'll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people will have a chance." Trump said, "When I look at what's going on in Syria, it's so sad."

The president-elect, in his first comments on the U.S. role in Syria since winning the election, said he would ask Persian Gulf nations to contribute to the financing of the zones.

The United Nations Security Council was expected to meet in an emergency session Friday to discuss Aleppo. France, which called for the meeting, wants international observers on hand to monitor the evacuation of civilians, which is taking place after years of fighting in the city. Previous cease-fires collapsed almost immediately, putting a halt to evacuation efforts.

The conflict in Syria, which began nearly six years ago as a protest against the government, has so far killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions of people to flee their homes.

Violence continues

Meanwhile, an explosion hit a southeastern neighborhood of Syria's capital, Damascus, on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. The group reported that one person was killed, but could not confirm whether the person was a suicide bomber or a bystander. State media, however, reported that a blast at a police station in Damascus' Midan neighborhood was caused by a young girl who blew herself up.

The developments come one day after convoys of ambulances and buses pulled away from Aleppo, which was a crown jewel of Muslim and Arab history and culture before the Syrian civil war left it in ruins.

The buses left eastern Aleppo and went into government-held territory before eventually making it to another rebel-held part of the province.

Some of the evacuated civilians praised Allah for saving them even as they left behind the bodies of friends and relatives under slabs of concrete that used to be schools, homes and stores.

Scores of wounded civilians arrived in Turkey Friday for treatment.

Syrian rebels hold on to only a sliver of eastern Aleppo after Syrian forces, with Russian military support, began their push to retake the city. President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that history would be made with what he referred to as the "liberation of Aleppo."

"What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today. It started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria," Assad said in a video posted to his official Twitter account.

Assad likened his government's recapture of Aleppo to other historical events, including the birth of Jesus and the fall of the Soviet Union, and said history would be permanently altered.

Kerry criticizes terrorizing of civilians

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "We have witnessed indiscriminate slaughter, not accidents of war, not collateral damage, but frankly purposeful, cynical policy of terrorizing civilians."

Kerry said the United States is going to work to save lives and continue pushing all parties in Syria toward a resolution and allow full access by humanitarian groups throughout all of Syria.

"We believe this is a moment where the Syrian regime and the Russian military have an opportunity to make the decision to, a strategic decision I might add, for peace."

With tens of thousands of lives still concentrated in a small part of Aleppo, Kerry said the last thing anybody wants to see is another Srebrenica - the Bosnian town where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995 during the war in the Balkans.

"There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the indiscriminate and savage brutality against civilians shown by the regime and by its Russian and Iranian allies over the past few weeks, indeed over the past five years," Kerry said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter criticized the Russians Thursday for failing to carry out their stated reasons for becoming involved in Syria, which was to help in the political transition.

"The Russians came in – I'll remind you – to Syria saying that they were there to promote precisely that political transition. And they haven't done that. And they also said they were coming in to fight ISIL (Islamic State) and they haven't done that either," Carter said.

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