BEIRUT — Rebel and government forces agreed Saturday to allow “humanitarian cases” to leave two besieged government-held Shiite villages in northwestern Syria, a step that would allow the resumption of civilian and rebel evacuations from eastern Aleppo, which were suspended a day earlier.
The Syrian government has said that the village evacuations and the one in eastern Aleppo must be done simultaneously, but the rebels say there is no connection.
The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation of some 4,000 people, including wounded, from the villages of Foua and Kfarya was expected to start Saturday.
The group later reported that 29 buses were heading toward the two villages to start the evacuation process, adding that insurgents in the area rejected allowing 4,000 people to leave and saying that they will only allow 400 people to be evacuated.
The Syrian army said another 25 buses left later Saturday heading to the two villages.
It was not immediately clear whether the alleged evacuation limits in the two villages set by the insurgents would undermine evacuation efforts in Aleppo.
The Aleppo evacuation was suspended Friday after a report of shooting by both sides of the conflict at a crossing point into the Aleppo enclave. Thousands were evacuated before the process was put on hold.
A Syrian state TV correspondent, speaking from Aleppo, said Saturday that the main condition for the Aleppo evacuation to resume is for residents of Foua and Kfarya to be allowed to leave.
The Lebanese group Hezbollah’s Military Media said the new deal also includes the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, where tens of thousands of people are trapped under siege by government forces and Hezbollah fighters.
Opposition activists blamed Hezbollah fighters allied with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for blocking the main road south of Aleppo and obstructing evacuations from rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands of people, including women, children, the sick and injured, remain trapped in eastern Aleppo waiting in freezing temperatures for the evacuation to resume. The ICRC said it is aware a new agreement could be reached soon and has called on all parties on the ground to “do their utmost to end this limbo.”
“We’re ready to resume facilitating the evacuation according to our humanitarian mandate. But we now expect all the parties on the ground to provide us with solid guarantees in order to keep the operation going,” said the ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, who is in Aleppo. “They’re the ones who have to protect the people and provide safe passage. We cannot abandon these people.”
— Associated Press