The evacuation of the last opposition-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo was suspended on Friday after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people should also be brought out of two Shi’ite villages being besieged by rebel fighters.
The second day of the operation to take fighters and civilians out of Aleppo’s rebel enclave ground to a halt amid recriminations from all sides after a morning that had seen the pace of the operation pick up.
“Aleppo is now a synonym for hell,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters. “I very much regret that we had to stop this operation.”
Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.
Russia said the Syrian army had established control over all districts of eastern Aleppo, although government troops were suppressing isolated areas where rebel fighters continued to resist.
Rebel sources said pro-government Shi’ite 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.
“We returned them to their places,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said a group of ambulances and cars containing hundreds of civilians and fighters were stopped by pro-government gunmen at a checkpoint south-west of Aleppo. They later returned to the enclave.
Rebels in eastern Aleppo went on high alert after pro-government forces prevented civilians from leaving and deployed heavy weaponry on the road out of the area, a Syrian rebel commander in the city said.
A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups.
The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of the war
But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebel groups in nearby Idlib province, should also be evacuated.
Iran, one of Syria’s main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a ceasefire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said.
A Syrian rebel source said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, was the last rebel group to agree to let injured people out of the villages. But a Nusra source denied this.
The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of the war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on each side.
Though both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi’ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow’s efforts to broker the evacuation of eastern Aleppo.