France, Russia reach compromise as Aleppo rescue uncertain
December 18, 2016
BEIRUT — France struck a compromise Sunday with Russia on a U.N. resolution that it said would prevent "mass atrocities" in besieged areas of Aleppo, where thousands of trapped civilians and rebel fighters await evacuation in freezing temperatures.
On the ground, prospects for swift evacuations from Aleppo and other besieged areas were thrown into doubt again Sunday after militants burned buses assigned to the rescue operation.
The Aleppo evacuations were to have been part of a wider deal that would simultaneously allow more than 2,000 sick and wounded people to leave two pro-government villages that have been besieged by Syrian rebels. Most villagers are Shiite Muslims, while most rebels are Sunni Muslims.
Six buses that were among those poised to enter the villages of Foua and Kfarya on Sunday were set on fire by unidentified militants, presumably to scuttle any deal.
A video posted online showed armed men near the burning buses as celebratory gunshots rang out. "The buses that came to evacuate the apostates have been burned," the narrator of the video said. He warned that no "Shiite pigs" would be allowed to leave the towns.
The video could not be verified independently, but was in line with AP reporting from the area.
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Earlier Sunday, pro-Syrian government TV stations showed dozens of buses on stand-by at a crossing near eastern Aleppo, reportedly poised to resume evacuations from the opposition's last foothold in the city.
The evacuations had been suspended two days earlier amid mutual recriminations after several thousand people had been ferried out of the war zone. Thousands more desperate civilians are believed trapped in the city.
About 2,700 children were evacuated in the first rescue mission earlier this week, but hundreds more "are now waiting in freezing temperatures close to the front lines," said Shushan Mebrahtu of the U.N. agency for children, UNICEF. "We are deeply worried."
Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher and Aleppo resident, said he went to an evacuation point Sunday afternoon and found buses with evacuees on board, but that the vehicles did not move. The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the buses hadn't left the city.
A bus convoy with Aleppo evacuees was stuck for hours in a buffer zone between the front lines in the city without food or water, according to aid officials familiar with the negotiations between the two sides.
Eastern Aleppo resident Rami Zien, who said he was on one of the buses "stuck in a no-man's land" between government and rebel control, told The Associated Press via messenger service that evacuees were stressed and frightened. "Government forces are just ahead of me and if anything goes wrong I'll be the first to die," he wrote.
Zien said evacuees were crammed 70 people to a bus, with many having no room to sit. He said the Red Crescent, which is facilitating the evacuation, had been unable to provide water. He said there were 50 to 60 buses in the convoy.
On Friday, a bus convoy carrying evacuees was stuck in government territory in Aleppo and was turned back after being searched.
The continued suspension of evacuations is throwing into disarray an Aleppo deal that had been brokered last week by Syria ally Russia and opposition supporter Turkey.
The deal marked a turning point in the country's civil war. With the opposition leaving Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar Assad has effectively reasserted his control over Syria's five largest cities and its Mediterranean coast nearly six years after a national movement to unseat him took hold.
At the United Nations, France and Russia announced an agreement on a compromise U.N. resolution to deploy U.N. monitors to eastern Aleppo to ensure safe evacuations and immediate delivery of humanitarian aid.
France's U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, told reporters the compromise was reached after more than three hours of closed consultations Sunday and the Security Council would vote on the resolution at 9 a.m. EST today.
He said some countries want to report to their capitals overnight. He said he hoped for a positive vote, but that he remained cautious.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters before consultations that Moscow could not accept the French draft resolution unless it was changed. He presented council members with a rival text.
After the consultations, Churkin said a "good text" had been formulated.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said the resolution would quickly put more than 100 U.N. personnel on the ground to monitor evacuations. "The text contains all the elements for safe, secure, dignified evacuation, for humanitarian access to those who choose to remain in eastern Aleppo" and for protecting civilians, she said.
She said that following the siege in eastern Aleppo, there have been "many, many reports of people being pulled off buses and disappeared, whether into conscription or into torture chambers or killed outright." Deploying U.N. monitors would deter "some of the worst excesses," she said.
Delattre agreed. Approval of the resolution, he said, "would give us collectively the tools to avoid … a situation in which, after the end of major military operations, forces including militias, would commit mass atrocities."
He said the resolution could also offer leverage to negotiate a broader cease-fire.