UN Security Council unanimously approves UN monitors for Aleppo evacuation
Thousands remain trapped in rebel enclave amid worsening winter conditions
The UN Security Council has unanimously approved a resolution urging immediate deployment of United Nations monitors to former rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which France says is critical to prevent "mass atrocities" by Syrian forces, and especially militias.
The resolution adopted Monday calls for the United Nations and other institutions to monitor evacuations from eastern Aleppo and demands that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urgently consult Syria and other parties on security and arrangements for the immediate deployment of the monitors.
France and Russia, who submitted rival draft resolutions, announced agreement on a text after more than three hours of closed-door consultations on Sunday.
Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari says Syria described the resolution as "just another part of the continued propaganda against Syria and its fight against terrorists."
While he said Syria does not oppose the resolution, he insisted UN and other aid workers have always been permitted to safely operate in Aleppo.
Canada, which earlier this month drafted and succeeded in passing a UN General Assembly motion demanding an end to the violence in Syria, welcomed the resolution.
"Syrians in Aleppo and throughout Syria have been waiting for much too long for this decision on critical evacuations, humanitarian access and monitoring," Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said.
Thousands flee Aleppo, Syrian villages
The operation to bring thousands of people out of the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo resumed Monday after being held up for several days, together with the evacuation of two besieged pro-government villages in nearby Idlib province.
Convoys of buses from eastern Aleppo reached rebel-held areas of countryside to the west of the city, according to a UN official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. At the same time, 10 buses left the Shia Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, north of Idlib, for government lines in Aleppo, the sources said.
The evacuation of civilians, including wounded people, from the two villages had been demanded by the Syrian army and its allies before they would allow fighters and civilians trapped in Aleppo to depart.
The standoff halted the Aleppo evacuation over the weekend.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a total of 20,000 civilians had been evacuated from Aleppo, including 4,500 since midnight on Sunday.
Children freed from orphanage
The United Nations said nearly 50 children, some critically injured, were rescued from eastern Aleppo, where they had been trapped in an orphanage.
Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director, said in a statement that all 47 children trapped were taken to safety, "with some in critical condition from injuries and dehydration."
Syrian state TV and pro-Damascus stations showed the first four buses arriving in Aleppo from the besieged villages, accompanied by pick-up trucks and with people sitting on their roofs.
Battle over, but war rages on
The recapture of Aleppo is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory so far in the nearly six-year-old war, but the fighting is by no means over with large tracts of the country still under the control of insurgent and Islamist groups.
Photographs of people evacuated from Aleppo showed large groups of people standing or crouching with their belongings or loading sacks onto trucks before heading off to further destinations.
Children, dressed in winter clothes against the cold, carried small backpacks or played with kittens. On one older man, in traditional Arab robes and headdress, sat holding a stick.
On Sunday, some of the buses sent to Foua and Kefraya to carry evacuees out were attacked and torched by armed men, who shouted "God is greatest" and brandished their weapons in front of the burning vehicles, according to a video posted online.
That incident threatened to derail the evacuations, the result of intense negotiations between Russia — Assad's main supporter — and Turkey, which backs some large rebel groups.
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The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey will hold talks in Moscow on Tuesday aimed at giving fresh impetus for a solution in Aleppo.
Waiting to escape
For those still waiting to leave rebel-held Aleppo, conditions were grim, according to Aref al-Aref, a nurse and photographer there.
"I'm still in Aleppo. I'm waiting for them to evacuate the children and women first. It's very cold and there's hunger. It's a long wait," he told Reuters. "People are burning wood and clothes to keep warm in the streets."
Reports differed on how many people remain, ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians, along with an estimated 6,000 fighters.
The weather in Aleppo has been wet and very cold and there is little shelter and few services in the tiny rebel zone. In the square in Aleppo's Sukari district, organisers gave every family a number to allow them access to buses.
"Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape," said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.
With files from Reuters and CBC News