Aleppo evacuations to resume under new ‘people-swap’ deal

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ALEPPO, Syria — Evacuations of thousands of civilians and rebels from Syria’s eastern Aleppo were set to resume Sunday after faltering, having left many to sleep on the streets in subzero temperatures and in bombed-out buildings for two nights.

A new deal was struck Saturday after almost two days of negotiations to give safe passage to those remaining in the last pocket of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, according to a statement by Osama Abazid of the the Free Syrian Army rebel alliance.

The deal is essentially a people swap between four cities that will see those loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime evacuated from areas held or besieged by rebels. In exchange, civilians, rebels and others loyal to the opposition will be given safe passage from eastern Aleppo, now almost entirely government controlled.

Latest developments

Buses have entered eastern Aleppo, Syrian state media reports New deal was mediated by Turkey after two ceasefires crumbled 9,000 people evacuated before operations were suspended Friday Rebels say Iranian militia groups brought evacuations to a halt

Iranian militia involvement?

The International Committee of the Red Cross had called for the quick resumption of the evacuations on Saturday, with “thousands of people — including women, children, the sick and injured — trapped in freezing temperatures waiting for the operations to continue.”

Syrian state television reported that buses had entered eastern Aleppo on Sunday, while CNN sources saw buses entering rebel-besieged Kefraya and Foua in the neighboring Idlib province, from where some 4,000 people will be evacuated, including Iranian and other Shia militia groups loyal to Assad. Evacuations will take place in the cities of Madaya and Zabadani as well.

But for many, being taken to Idlib is moving from one war zone to another — Idlib is widely expected to be the regime’s next target, and the evacuations are in effect moving the rebels to one containable zone.

As many as 9,000 people had been evacuated from Aleppo’s besieged east in nine convoys on Thursday and Friday, but the evacuation came to a sudden halt Friday.

The Syrian state news agency SANA has said the evacuations were suspended after some evacuees were found to be transporting weapons and advanced communication devices.

But rebels claimed that Iranian and other Shia militia groups loyal to Assad had made fresh demands to have regime loyalists freed from other rebel-held areas.

“We would like to highlight that the Iranians are the main reason for delays and obstacles,” Abazid told CNN.

“We call upon you to spare no effort to ensure that attacks on convoys are prevented at all costs.”

‘All my children are gone’

And for those staying, life is only getting more grim, as the government’s grip on eastern Aleppo is now so tight, there is little left for civilians.

The Syrian regime was accused of continuing its destructive airstrikes this week in violation of the earlier ceasefires agreed.

A harrowing video broadcast by ITV’s Channel 4 of what is believed to be eastern Aleppo’s last hospital shows a child siting on a bed, covered in dust and blood, visibly traumatized, following an airstrike.

A woman, also bloodied and white with dust, wails in pain, saying she lost all her children in a strike in their home as they slept, .

“I don’t know what he (Assad) hit us with. We were at home sleeping. Suddenly, the whole building just fell on us. Oh my god! All my children are gone,” she said.

A boy, who appears in the video to be a young teenager, is in tears and shock as he cradles the body of his 1-month old brother, who suffocated in a strike. Two children are escorted around the hospital to look for their parents, hoping they are not the latest to be orphaned.

Security Council to vote

The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet later Sunday morning to vote on a proposal brought by France that would redeploy UN staff to Aleppo to monitor and report on the evacuation of civilians.

UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Twitter there were “big protection concerns” for the new evacuations.

But the Security Council has come under criticism, having failed to find a politicial solution over the Syria war — which has raged for more than five years, killing at least 400,000 people — and often failing to even agree on days-long ceasefires.

Russia, which has supported Assad with airstrikes since September 2015, has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council six times to shoot down UN resolutions on the conflict, while China has vetoed five of those six. But Russia supports the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, which will essentially give the Syrian regime free reign over the territory.

The Syrian regime is on the brink of retaking the whole city of Aleppo, which has been partly held by rebels for more than four years.

If the regime does take control of the key city, it would mark a turning point in the brutal war. The development would put the regime back in charge of all five major cities in Syria, making a political opposition far less likely.

CNN’s Sheena McKenzie, Eyad Kourdi, Richard Roth, Marilia Brocchetto, Steve Visser, Jennifer Deaton, Natalie Gallon, Jomana Karadsheh and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.