| ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT
ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT An attempt to evacuate people in need of medical attention from rebel-held eastern Aleppo stalled on Thursday when fighters loyal to the Syrian government fired on the convoy, wounding three, the head of the ambulance service said.
The vehicles had intended to leave under a deal to evacuate people from rebel areas following rapid advances in Aleppo by government forces.
The evacuation of the last rebel enclave would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The convoy was shot at by regime forces and we have three injured, one of them from civil defence … They were brought back to besieged areas,” ambulance service Ahmed Sweid told the pro-opposition Orient TV.
A Reuters witness in nearby government-held territory heard a burst of gunfire that lasted several minutes.
An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the medical convoy had stopped before clearing the besieged eastern part of the city.
A Syrian official source told Reuters earlier on Thursday that efforts to organise the departure of fighters from east Aleppo had begun and the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been asked to assist with the evacuation.
A Reuters witness in government-held territory said columns of black smoke could be seen rising out of the rebel-held area. Thirty green buses guarded by Syrian soldiers were waiting to ferry people out of eastern Aleppo.
Residents hoping to be taken out have been burning personal belongings they cannot take with them. “Outside every building you see a small fire, papers, women’s clothes,” a resident of eastern Aleppo told Reuters.
Russian soldiers were preparing to lead rebels out of Aleppo, the defence ministry in Moscow said. Syria had guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families, who would be taken towards Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria.
Russia would use drones to monitor how rebels and their families were transported on 20 buses, accompanied by 10 ambulances, along a humanitarian corridor, the ministry said.
A truce brokered by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, and opposition backer Turkey on Tuesday broke down following renewed fighting on Wednesday and the evacuation did not take place then as planned.
An official from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said a new truce came into effect at 2.30am (0030GMT) on Thursday.
Shortly before the new deal was announced, clashes raged in Aleppo.
Government forces made a new advance in Sukkari – one of a handful of districts still held by rebels – and brought half of the neighbourhood under their control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Rebels said they attacked government forces with suicide car bombs.
The Russian defence ministry said – before the report of the government forces’ advance in Sukkari – that the rebels controlled an enclave of only 2.5 square km (1 square mile).
The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire.
By taking control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shi’ite militias from across the region.
Rebels have been backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but that support has fallen far short of the direct military assistance given to Assad by Russia and Iran.
Russia’s decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad’s favour after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.
The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria.
Carla del Ponte, a United Nations investigator and former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, told German newspaper Die Zeit that Russian and Syrian bombing of homes, hospitals and schools amounted to war crimes, as did the starving out of parts of Aleppo for months by militias loyal to the government.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Giles Elgood)