Russia said the operation to evacuate civilians and insurgents from eastern Aleppo has been completed, but opposition leaders say there are tens of thousands remaining in once rebel-held neighborhoods and accuse Iranian militias and Hezbollah of executing several men in the last convoy to leave the city.
According to Syrian opposition leaders, a convoy that left Aleppo Friday carrying 800 people, including rebel fighters, was stopped by Iranian-commanded militias in the Jisr al-Haj district, who forcibly disarmed the insurgents in breach of the cease-fire agreement, seized the team of civil defense workers overseeing the convoy evacuation, and killed three of them.
"Militias forced everyone to get off the buses, confiscated all individual weapons, forced men to get undressed to their underwear, killed three men and injured 7 others, then forced the convoy to go back to the besieged area of Aleppo city, and some buses are still missing,” said Ahmad Abo Al-Nour, who witnessed the events.
Another eyewitness among the evacuees said that about 20 buses accompanied by members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Red Cross in separate cars successfully navigated a checkpoint controlled by Russian soldiers but were subsequently stopped at a checkpoint by Shi’ite militiamen from the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
FILE - A Hezbollah flag flutters in a government-controlled area, as seen from the rebel-controlled area of Karm al-Tarab frontline, near Aleppo international airport April 22, 2015.
Hezbollah killings reported
According to the eyewitness, who did not want to be named in this article, the convoy was halted for 15 minutes, then tanks and Hezbollah militiamen surrounded the convoy, fired indiscriminately in the air and expelled the accompanying Red Cross and Red Crescent workers. The militiamen forced all the men to get off the buses and confiscated their weapons and mobile phones.
Accompanied by his pregnant wife, a fighter who tried to resist was killed along with four others. They seized some of the civil defense cars and ambulances and forced the rest of the convoy back to the besieged pocket in eastern Aleppo.
Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, said the Aleppo evacuation was complete, with all rebels and their families who wanted to leave having done so. It put the number of evacuees at more than 9,500.
Opposition leaders and Turkish officials disputed the Russian claim, saying thousands still wanted to leave. Speaking in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said consultations were still underway with Russia and Iran, another key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as “elements on the ground.”
An image from video taken on Dec. 13, 2016 of a general view of bomb damaged eastern Aleppo, Syria in the rain
In light of the Russian announcement that the evacuation of civilians and fighters from a sliver of territory still controlled by the insurgents is now complete, fears are mounting that a full scale massacre may unfold.
U.N. officials say between 6,000-8,000 people have been evacuated this week from eastern Aleppo after regime forces recaptured most rebel districts. They estimate 50,000 people remain in a pocket still held by anti-Assad insurgents.
That pocket, however, may be shrinking rapidly. Russian military officials Friday said regime forces were inside the pocket, and there were unconfirmed reports of pro-government units engaging in mopping up operations.
There still are high numbers of women and infants that need to get out, according to World Health Organization officials. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has accused the Syrian government of carrying out “nothing short of a massacre” in Aleppo, and he has warned that the way in which Aleppo falls will determine whether peace talks will even be possible in coming weeks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin urged all sides to agree on a nationwide cease-fire. Speaking Friday during a visit to Japan, he said Moscow and Ankara were working on a round of peace talks to be held in Kazakhstan between the Assad government and opposition.
Syrian officials provided a different version of what’s happening with the evacuation. They said Friday they had suspended the operation, which U.N. officials had calculated would take weeks, because rebels had failed to observe an agreement to lift their own siege of two pro-government Shi’ite towns, Foua and Kefraya, which lie west of Aleppo in neighboring Idlib province.
Fighters and civilians who have been evacuated were taken in convoys to rebel-held parts of Idlib.
Russian and Syrian army soldiers gather at the last checkpoint before the front line with rebels, in Karam al-Tarab, east of Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 4, 2016.
A Syrian official overseeing the operation told the AFP news agency the evacuation had been halted “because the militants failed to respect the conditions of the agreement.” Syrian state media also accused rebels of trying to smuggle captives and heavy weapons as they left the besieged enclave.
Later on Friday, rebel commanders said an al-Qaida-linked militia group had agreed to ease its siege on Foua and Kefraya, and that evacuations from the two towns were likely to start shortly. Whether that would lead to a resumption of the evacuation from eastern Aleppo remains unclear.
Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed and her mother, Fatemah, whose plight in eastern Aleppo has captured the world's attention through Twitter, appealed Friday for help to U.S. first lady Michelle Obama in a video message sent to NBC News.
"I talk to you as a mother," Fatemah said in the message. "I implore you to help us ... because we are so afraid."
The message ends with a plea from seven-year-old Bana: "Hello, Mrs. Obama. Please help us.”