East Aleppo evacuations resume as Russia, France agree on new UN resolution
'Evacuations are on. Buses and ambulances are leaving east Aleppo now,' says UN official
Russia and France have announced a compromise agreement Sunday on a UN resolution to deploy UN monitors to eastern Aleppo to ensure safe evacuations and immediate delivery of humanitarian aid.
Shortly after the agreement, evacuations resumed in east Aleppo, a UN official in Syria told Reuters.
"Evacuations are on. Buses and ambulances are leaving east Aleppo now," the official said in an email message, adding that the first people left east Aleppo at around 11 p.m. local time.
The official had no immediate information about a planned simultaneous operation to evacuate people from two Shia villages near Idlib that are besieged by mostly Sunni rebel forces.
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France's UN Ambassador François Delattre told reporters after more than three hours of closed consultations Sunday that the Security Council will vote on the compromise resolution at 9 a.m. ET on Monday.
He said some countries want to report to their capitals overnight and "hopefully we'll have a positive vote," but he said he was still "cautious at this stage."Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters before consultations that Moscow could not accept the French draft resolution unless it was changed. He then presented council members with a rival text.
As he left consultations Sunday afternoon, Churkin told reporters: "I think we put in some good hours of work and I think we have a good text, and we're going to vote tomorrow morning."
Churkin previously told reporters before Security Council consultations on the draft resolution Sunday that Moscow has no problem with any kind of monitoring.
But he said the idea that monitors "should be told to go to wander around the ruins of eastern Aleppo without proper preparation and without informing everybody about what is going to happen — it has disaster written all over it."
Delattre said approval of the resolution "would give us collectively the tools to avoid ... a situation in which after the end of major military operations, forces including militias, would commit mass atrocities."
He said it would also "give us some leverage to try to open the way to a broader cease-fire and toward political negotiations."
Evacuation buses torched
The evacuation to transfer out trapped civilians and fighters in eastern Aleppo, as well as two Syrian villages, was thrown into doubt on Sunday when assailants torched six buses assigned to the operation.
The buses were to take part in the evacuation of over 2,000 wounded and sick Syrians from Foua and Kfarya, two rebel-besieged villages that have remained loyal to the government in an area under opposition control in the northwest Idlib province, activists and government media reported.
The bus burnings could scuttle a wider deal to evacuate thousands of vulnerable civilians and fighters from the opposition's last foothold in Aleppo and return the city entirely to government control.
Evacuations from Aleppo had been halted amid mutual recriminations Friday, after several thousand trapped civilians had already been moved from the city. The suspension of the evacuations had thrown an Aleppo deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last week into disarray.
That deal marked a turning point in the country's war. With the opposition leaving Aleppo, President Bashar al-Assad has effectively reasserted his control over Syria's five largest cities and its Mediterranean coast nearly six years after a national movement to unseat him took hold.
Al-Qaeda-affiliated group blamed for attacks
The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front was behind Sunday's assault on the buses. The insurgent group had been dragging its feet over approving the evacuation deal.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group fighting alongside Syria's government, said the buses were burned during fighting between Fatah al-Sham and a rebel group that supported the evacuations.
Most residents of the two villages are Shia Muslims, while the most powerful anti-government groups in Idlib are hard-line Sunnis.
The identity of the group behind the attack remains unclear. A video showing armed men circling the burning buses did not reveal their affiliation.
A coalition of rebel groups disavowed the bus burning as a "reckless attack," saying it endangered tens of thousands of Syrians trapped in Aleppo. No group has claimed responsibility for burning the buses.
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Earlier in the day, dozens of buses and ambulances were poised to enter east Aleppo to resume evacuating rebel fighters and civilians from the opposition's remaining districts, pro-Syrian government media said. But the evacuations remained on hold at nightfall.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has overseen the Aleppo evacuations, had no comment Sunday on their possible resumption. The agency has said thousands of people — among them women, children, the sick and the wounded — remain trapped in besieged areas of the city, waiting in freezing temperatures for the evacuations to resume.
With files from Reuters