Aleppo evacuation suspended amid dispute over villages

19 PHOTOS
Evacuees forced to turn back to Aleppo
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Evacuees forced to turn back to Aleppo
A member of forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stands near damaged buildings in Aleppo's Salaheddine district, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A bus bringing people out of eastern Aleppo drives back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Empty buses are seen leaving after the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo was suspended, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A man reacts as he waits with others to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
A man pushes a cart with a woman lying on it as vehicles wait to evacuate people from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Russian soldiers inspect rebels and civilians who were evacuated from rebel-held eastern Aleppo, in the government-held area of al-Ramousah bridge, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A member of forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad sits near damaged buildings in Aleppo's Salaheddine district, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 16: A convoy including buses and ambulances, evacuating civilians, trying to flee from East Aleppo that had been under siege by Assad regime forces and pro-regime foreign terrorist groups, arrives in Syria's Rashidin area, before the ongoing evacuation of civilians Aleppo was temporarily suspended after pro-regime terrorist groups attacked on December 16, 2016. (Photo by Ahmed Al Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Members of the Syrian government forces stand guard near buses and ambulances during an evacuation operation of Syrian rebel fighters and civilians from a opposition-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo's province on December 16, 2016. Russia announced it was negotiating with the Syrian opposition and seeking a nationwide ceasefire, as the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo entered a second day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, estimated some 8,500 people had left so far, including around 3,000 rebel fighters. Syrian state media reported a figure of around 8,000. / AFP / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces and Russian soldiers keep watch as civilians and fighters are evacuated from a rebel-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo's province on December 16, 2016. Russia announced it was negotiating with the Syrian opposition and seeking a nationwide ceasefire, as the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo entered a second day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, estimated some 8,500 people had left so far, including around 3,000 rebel fighters. Syrian state media reported a figure of around 8,000. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians are evacuated from a rebel-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo's province on December 16, 2016. Russia announced it was negotiating with the Syrian opposition and seeking a nationwide ceasefire, as the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo entered a second day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, estimated some 8,500 people had left so far, including around 3,000 rebel fighters. Syrian state media reported a figure of around 8,000. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad sit on a tank as a convoy of buses and other vehicles bringing people out of eastern Aleppo turns back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 16: A man carries two children in his arms as a convoy including buses and ambulances, evacuating civilians, trying to flee from East Aleppo that had been under siege by Assad regime forces and pro-regime foreign terrorist groups, arrives in Syria's Rashidin area, before the ongoing evacuation of civilians Aleppo was temporarily suspended after pro-regime terrorist groups attacked on December 16, 2016. (Photo by Ahmed Al Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 16: A convoy including buses and ambulances, evacuating civilians, trying to flee from East Aleppo that had been under siege by Assad regime forces and pro-regime foreign terrorist groups, arrives in Syria's Rashidin area, before the ongoing evacuation of civilians Aleppo was temporarily suspended after pro-regime terrorist groups attacked on December 16, 2016. (Photo by Ahmed Al Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 16: A convoy including buses and ambulances, evacuating civilians, trying to flee from East Aleppo that had been under siege by Assad regime forces and pro-regime foreign terrorist groups, arrives in Syria's Rashidin area, before the ongoing evacuation of civilians Aleppo was temporarily suspended after pro-regime terrorist groups attacked on December 16, 2016. (Photo by Ahmed Al Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces keep watch as civilians and fighters are evacuated from a rebel-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo's province on December 16, 2016. Russia announced it was negotiating with the Syrian opposition and seeking a nationwide ceasefire, as the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo entered a second day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, estimated some 8,500 people had left so far, including around 3,000 rebel fighters. Syrian state media reported a figure of around 8,000. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A convoy of buses and other vehicles bringing people out of eastern Aleppo turns back in the direction of the besieged rebel enclave, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
IDLIB, SYRIA - DECEMBER 16: A convoy including buses and ambulances, evacuating civilians, trying to flee from East Aleppo that had been under siege by Assad regime forces and pro-regime foreign terrorist groups, arrives in Syria's Idlib, which is located near the border with Turkey, on December 16, 2016. (Photo by Gaes sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The evacuation of the last opposition-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo was suspended on Friday after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people should also be brought out of two Shi'ite villages being besieged by rebel fighters.

The second day of the operation to take fighters and civilians out of Aleppo's rebel enclave ground to a halt amid recriminations from all sides after a morning that had seen the pace of the operation pick up.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.

SEE ALSO: Fake images of horror in Aleppo spread on social media

Russia said the Syrian army had established control over all districts of eastern Aleppo although government troops were suppressing isolated areas where rebel fighters continued to resist.

Rebel sources accused pro-government Shi'ite militias of opening fire on buses carrying evacuees from east Aleppo. Road blocks went up and a bus convoy was forced to turn back.

Rebels in eastern Aleppo went on high alert after pro-government forces prevented civilians from leaving and deployed heavy weaponry on the road out of the area, a Syrian rebel commander in the city said.

A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups.

But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the Shi'ite villages of Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province should also be evacuated.

Iran, one of Syria's main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a ceasefire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said.

A Syrian rebel source said all groups besieging the villages had now agreed to let injured people out and the evacuation could start as early as Friday.

The chaos surrounding the Aleppo evacuation reflects the complexity of the war with an array groups and foreign interests involved on each side.

Though both Russia and Iran back Assad, rebels have blamed Tehran and the Shi'ite groups it backs in Syria for obstructing Moscow's efforts to broker the evacuation of eastern Aleppo.

ALEPPO EVACUATION

Aid agencies involved in the Aleppo evacuation had been told to leave the area without explanation after the operation was aborted, the World Health Organization said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said a total of 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, had left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances since the evacuation began on Thursday morning.

Photos sent by an activist waiting to leave the rebel-held sector of east Aleppo showed crowds of people in thick coats in a street lined with flattened buildings in the cold winter air.

Private cars and minibuses with bundles strapped to their roofs filled the street, as people sat on rubble or stood next to bags of their belongings.

In a message sent to journalists, the activist said children were "hungry and crying" and people were "exhausted", not knowing if buses would arrive to take them out.

By early Friday morning, nearly 200 evacuated patients had arrived in eight "overwhelmed" hospitals in opposition-held rural western Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey, according to the WHO.

The United Nations says 50,000 people remain in rebel-held Aleppo, of whom about 10,000 would be taken to Idlib province and the rest would go to government-held city districts.

Idlib province, mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, is not a popular destination for fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, where nationalist rebel groups predominated.

Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian air strikes but it is unclear if the government will push for a ground assault or simply seek to contain rebels there for now.

Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.

Two potential sites just inside Syria have been identified to set up a camp, which could host up to 80,000 people, Turkish officials said, adding that they expected up to 35,000 people to come. Turkey would continue to accept sick and wounded coming from Aleppo.

17 PHOTOS
Destroyed homes with views of war after air strikes in Syria
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Destroyed homes with views of war after air strikes in Syria
People inspect a damaged building after strikes yesterday on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Children play near a damaged building in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
An injured girl reacts at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Boys play near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man stands next to a cow seen through a hole in the wall prior to Eid al-Adha celebrations in the rebel held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man reacts at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria July 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Civil defence members rest amidst rubble in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A solar panel is placed on rubble along a street in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A boy inspects a damaged house in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A youth inspects a damaged kitchen after strikes yesterday on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Residents inspect damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A girl runs past a damaged site after an airstrike in the besieged rebel-held town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A girl inspects damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man salvages belongings at a site hit yesterday by airstrikes in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man transports on a bicycle tree branches to be be placed on the graves of his relatives, on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A picture is hung on a wall inside a damaged house in the rebel-controlled area of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria April 11, 2016. Picture taken April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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PUTIN SEEKS CEASEFIRE

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's most powerful ally, said he was working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire.

Speaking in Japan, Putin said the new talks could be held in Kazakhstan and would complement U.N.-brokered negotiations that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva.

"The next step is to reach an agreement on a total ceasefire across the whole of Syria," the Russian leader said.

A senior Syrian opposition leader, Riyad Hijab, said he was willing to attend the talks if the aim was to set up transition government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ruled out stepping down as part of a political solution to the war.

Aleppo, a once-flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverized during the war that has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

The United States was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a ceasefire this week.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Syrian government was carrying out "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the U.N. Security Council would meet on Friday to discuss a quick deployment of U.N. observers to east Aleppo to ensure there were no atrocities and that humanitarian aid reached the city.

The Syrian White Helmets civil defense group and other rights organizations accused Russia of committing or being complicit in war crimes in Syria, saying Russian air strikes in the Aleppo region had killed 1,207 civilians, including 380 children.

Even with victory for Assad in Aleppo, the war will still be far from over. Insurgents retain their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist Islamic State group holds swathes of the east and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

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