Syrians were still trapped inside the last rebel foothold in eastern Aleppo on Wednesday, hours after an evacuation was set to begin.
The reason for the delay was unclear but residents inside the besieged city said they heard several explosions and gunfire, indicating that the shaky deal between the Syrian opposition and Russia is already strained.
After weeks of fierce fighting, President Bashar al-Assad looks set to reclaim his hold on the whole of Aleppo, the most symbolic and strategic city in Syria’s five-year civil war.
The fragile deal was agreed on Tuesday after days of negotiations mediated by Turkey, which backs the rebels, and Russia, which has intervened militarily on Mr Assad’s behalf. Diplomats said the plan was to evacuate civilians and fighters to the western countryside of Aleppo, which is still rebel-held.
Backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian-backed Shia foreign fighters from across the region, Assad forces had rapidly eroded the rebels’ hold on their last major urban stronghold.
For an untold number of civilians trapped inside the last 2 squ kms held by rebels in Aleppo, the deal raised hopes they had come to the end of a nightmare after months of hunger caused by the siege and day and night bombardment by Russian warplanes.
Pro-opposition media says the evacuation delay was caused by Iran and its aligned militia forces, which are blocking the evacuation until a deal is also struck to release the wounded trapped inside the besieged Shia towns of Kefraya and al-Fuaa in northern Syria, which have been surrounded by rebel groups for months.
Aleppo had been divided for four years since rebels stormed the city in 2012 — rebels held the east while Mr Assad’s forces held the west. But rebel defences collapsed quickly in the recent regime ground offensive and more than 100,000 people fled towards government-held areas.
It is unclear how many people remain inside the last rebel-held districts but most of those who stayed felt they had no choice, fearing their opposition to the Assad regime would expose them to arrest or worse if they entered government-held areas, where security forces screen all arrivals.
There have been unconfirmed reports that more than 80 people were summarily executed on Monday during rapid regime advances. But the reports have been denied by the government.
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