'Aleppo is now a synonym for hell': Thousands stranded as evacuations stall
Opposition forces must let people out of villages in the west, Syrian official says
U.S. President Barack Obama says Syria, Russia and Iran have blood on their hands for what's happened in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The president made the comments at a White House news conference on Friday after the evacuation of eastern Aleppo stalled amid recriminations by both sides in Syria's civil war, raising fears the ceasefire could collapse with thousands still desperate to escape the rebel enclave.
Obama says the world is "united in horror" at the assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo. He accused the Syrian government and its two powerful allies of deliberately "surrounding, besieging and starving innocent civilians," and targeting aid workers and medical personnel.
Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to "rubble and dust," he said, and civilians have been executed.
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Meanwhile, diplomats sought to salvage the evacuation process, which was suspended after a report of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave.
A closed emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held on the crisis.
"The carnage in Syria remains a gaping hole in the global conscience," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. "Aleppo is now a synonym for hell."
'Both sides are blaming each other'
The Syrian government pulled out buses that since Thursday had been ferrying people from the ancient city that has suffered under intense bombardment, fierce battles and a prolonged siege.
Rebel sources said pro-government Shia 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.
"Both sides are blaming each other," said CBC's Nil Koksal from Istanbul. "We knew all along how fragile the ceasefire is. We see again how real the problems are there."
The problem appeared to be linked to a separate effort to remove thousands of people from two government-held Shia villages
Al-Foua and Kefraya, in Idlib province to the west, are surrounded by rebel forces. Pro-government militias backed by Iran had earlier insisted on their evacuation in exchange for people being allowed out of Aleppo.
"If the evacuation of the injured in Kefraya and al-Foua takes place, the operation to evacuate eastern Aleppo will resume immediately," a Syrian official told Reuters.
Syrian state TV later said buses were heading to the villages.
Syrian state media said rebels shelled a road that was supposed to be used by people leaving the villages. The opposition's Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters had cut the road to protest a lack of progress in those evacuations.
Two rebel spokesmen privy to the talks said the fighters besieging the villages had agreed to allow several hundred wounded to leave. If it happens, it may lead to the resumption of evacuation from Aleppo.
Exact numbers unclear
There were differing reports on how many people had been evacuated from the rebel enclave in Aleppo and how many remained inside, who would be in danger of being caught in the crossfire if the ceasefire falls apart. Reports by opposition activists and officials in eastern Aleppo ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians still inside the tiny enclave, along with some 6,000 fighters.
Thousands of people were brought out of the enclave on Thursday and early Friday, though the exact numbers are unclear.
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Syrian state TV said than more than 9,000 people — including women, children and wounded — left on Thursday alone.
The International Committee of the Red Cross put Thursday's count at about 4,000 civilians.
Elizabeth Hoff, the Syria representative for the World Health Organization, said by phone from western Aleppo that there are still "high numbers of women and infants, children under five, that need to get out."
Earlier on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a major new Syria peace initiative, saying he and his Turkish counterpart are working to set up talks for an overall truce between Damascus and the opposition. Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, brokered the ceasefire with Turkey, which supports some of the rebel groups.
The evacuations seal the end of the Syrian rebels' most important stronghold — the eastern part of the city of Aleppo — and mark a watershed moment in the country's civil war.
Assad called it a historic event comparable to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Qur'an.
Also on Friday, Syrian state media reported that a seven-year-old girl wearing a belt of explosives walked into a police station in the capital of Damascus, and her bomb was triggered by remote control, killing her and wounding a policeman.
With files from Reuters and CBC News