The pullout of Syrian rebels and civilians from their last holdout in the city of Aleppo has been delayed today, though the cause was not immediately known.
The withdrawal was expected to start early in the morning, hours after the remaining rebel factions reached a ceasefire deal to evacuate from eastern Aleppo in what is effectively a surrender of the city’s few remaining opposition-run neighbourhoods to government control - and a defining moment in Syria’s civil war.
An opposition official told the Associated Press today that there were 800 sick and wounded people requiring immediate medical evacuation from eastern Aleppo.
BREAKING: Syrian opposition activists say bombing of eastern Aleppo has resumed despite cease-fire deal.— The Associated Press (@AP) December 14, 2016
The last-minute deal was mediated by Ankara and Moscow as the rebel enclave rapidly dissolved and ceded more and more territory in the face of the brutal advance by Syrian forces, backed by Russia and assisted by Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Late on Tuesday, the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for immediate access to the former rebel enclave to confirm the end of military operations and to oversee the safe departure of tens of thousands of civilians and opposition fighters from the last sliver of eastern Aleppo into which they had been squeezed by the advancing government forces.
Mr De Mistura was at the Security Council where an emergency meeting for Aleppo was held.
The pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV broadcast on Wednesday footage of Syrian government buses idling at an agreed-on evacuation point. The cause of the delay was not immediately clear but the TV report said it was expected to last at least another couple of hours.
It said the buses are prepared to move 5,000 fighters and their families to Atareb, an opposition-held town in the north-western Aleppo countryside.
Brita Haj Hassan, a Syrian opposition official living in exile, told the Associated Press from Luxembourg that the UN and other intermediaries had informed the opposition that the evacuation had been delayed until Thursday.
However, there was no comment from the government, the United Nations or aid groups on the ground. Haj Hassan, who is on the opposition’s local council for Aleppo, said he blamed Russia and Iran for the delay.
The dramatic developments surrounding Aleppo - which would restore the remainder of what was once Syria’s largest city to President Bashar Assad’s forces after months of heavy fighting and a crippling siege - followed reports of mass killings by government forces closing in on the final few blocks still held by the rebels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the emergency meeting late on Tuesday that he had received "credible reports" of civilians killed by pro-government forces as they swept into the last rebel areas in Aleppo.
"To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran - three member states behind the conquest of and carnage in Aleppo - you bear responsibility for these atrocities," said US Ambassador Samantha Power.
Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s UN ambassador, denied any mass killings or revenge attacks, but added that it was Syria’s "constitutional right" to go after "terrorists" - a reference to all opposition fighters.
"Aleppo has been liberated from terrorists and those who toyed with terrorism," he said. "Aleppo has returned to the nation."