ALEPPO: Plans to evacuate besieged opposition districts of Aleppo were under threat on Wednesday as renewed airstrikes and shelling rocked the Syrian city in a bombardment the UN said “most likely constitute war crimes.”
Iran imposed new conditions, saying it wanted the simultaneous evacuation of wounded from two villages besieged by opposition fighters, according to UN sources.
Syrian government forces renewed shelling on the last holdouts of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, raising fears that a deal to evacuate civilians and fighters from the devastated city may not be honoured.
“There is artillery [being fired] now … as I speak,” Zouhir Al Shimale, a journalist in east Aleppo, told Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp message on Wednesday.
— Zouhir_AlShimale (@ZouhirAlShimale) December 14, 2016
“There aren’t any clashes,” he said, explaining rebel groups were not fighting at the moment. “There are injuries, but we don’t know how many. We can’t go outside because the shelling is indiscriminate.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said shelling could be heard, but its origin was not clear. Speaking to Reuters news agency, rebel commanders said government forces had renewed shelling and violated a ceasefire reached a day earlier.
There was no sign of that happening. Instead airstrikes, shelling and gunfire erupted in Aleppo and Turkey accused regime forces of breaking a truce agreed less than a day before. The regime’s television said opposition shelling killed six people.
There were clashes on the ground later in the day, with opposition fighters saying they launched an attack against regime forces using suicide car bombs.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, said he was appalled that the deal appeared to have collapsed. “While the reasons for the breakdown in the cease-fire are disputed, the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the regime forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constitutes war crimes,” he added.
There was no immediate indication when the evacuation of civilians and fighters might take place but a pro-opposition TV station said it could be delayed until Thursday.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call to make a joint effort to start the process, Turkish presidential sources said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov predicted that opposition resistance in Aleppo would last no more than two or three days. Moscow said the opposition now controlled an enclave of only 2.5 square km. Turkey, Russia and Iran will hold a meeting in Moscow on Dec. 27 to try to find a solution to the five-year conflict, Ankara said on Wednesday.
In a separate development, a US general said Daesh possibly seized air-defense weapons when they recaptured Palmyra. It adds a potential complication to the coalition’s air war, he said.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, said terrorists seized a trove of gear when they retook the desert city.
“We believe that includes some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air-defense equipment,” Townsend said in a video briefing from Baghdad.
Massacred in cold blood
Explaining that civilians were scared the evacuation could be delayed further, Shimale said: “No one knows what the regime will do.”
“People here are shocked [by the delay],” Shimale said. “We didn’t sleep last night waiting to leave.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he expected the last of the “rebel resistance” to end within two to three days.
In what appeared to be a separate development from the planned evacuation, the Russian defence ministry said 6,000 civilians and 366 fighters had left rebel-held districts of Aleppo over the past 24 hours.
ears have been growing for thousands of trapped civilians as rebels make a desperate last stand in their remaining pocket of territory.
Late on Tuesday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek announced his government was planning to set up a new tent city to host “80,000 people fleeing eastern Aleppo”. He did not specify whether the facility would be in Turkey or Syria.
The UN said on Tuesday it received reports about pro-government forces executing scores of civilians in Aleppo, including women and children.
Eighty-two people were reportedly killed when Syrian forces took over rebel-held areas, it said.
Marwan Kabalan, a Syria analyst and associate political analyst at the Doha Institute, said the ceasefire breach may signal growing differences between Russia and Iran.
“The Russians seem to be bowing to international pressure in order to make the truce hold,” he told Al Jazeera.