Deal Reached to Evacuate Aleppo, Shi'ite Villages

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A child sleeps while waiting to be evacuated with others from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 17. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Syrian rebels and pro-government forces reached a deal on Sunday to resume evacuations from east Aleppo in exchange for people being allowed to leave two Shi'ite villages besieged by insurgents.

Some buses and Red Crescent vehicles arrived at the entrance to the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya shortly after the deal was announced, according to al-Manar television, affiliated to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus.

However, five buses were attacked and burned on their way to the villages, most of whose residents are Shi'ite Muslims, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state media said. State television broadcast pictures of flames coming from the green buses which have come to be synonymous with evacuations in Syria.

State media said "armed terrorists," a term it uses for groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, carried out the attack. Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government forces, was responsible.

Buses also began to arrive in eastern Aleppo, state media said, showing live footage.

The Aleppo evacuation ground to a halt on Friday after a disagreement between rebels and the coalition of forces fighting for Assad's government, who wanted people to be allowed to leave the two villages.

Over 15,000 people gathered in a square in east Aleppo on Sunday to wait for buses to arrive and take them to rebel-held areas outside the city. Many had spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures. According to Syria's al-Ikhbariya TV news, about 1,200 civilians would initially be evacuated from east Aleppo and a similar number from the two villages.

A document cited by al-Manar television and passed to Reuters by rebels and activists said the entire deal would see 2,500 citizens leave al-Foua and Kefraya in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo in two corresponding batches.

Following this, another 1,500 would leave al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of 1,500 from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Lebanon, which are besieged by pro-government forces.

Once evacuees from the villages have safely arrived in government areas, Aleppo fighters and more of their family members will be allowed to leave, in return for subsequent batches of people departing al-Foua and Kefraya, al-Ikhbariya TV reported.

'They Just Want to Escape'

In the square in Aleppo's Sukari district, every family had been given a number by organizers to allow them on buses when they arrive.

"Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape," said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the insurgents out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.

Security Council Vote

The United Nations Security Council is due to vote Sunday on a French-drafted resolution aimed at ensuring that U.N. officials can monitor the evacuations from Aleppo and the protection of civilians who remain.

The draft U.N. text, seen by Reuters on Saturday, also "emphasizes that the evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice, and protection must be provided to all civilians who choose or who have been forced to be evacuated and those who opt to remain in their homes."

A vote has been scheduled for Sunday morning, diplomats said.

It was not immediately clear how Russia would vote. Before the draft was circulated to the council, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Friday: "If it is a sensible initiative and we see it on paper, why not entertain this initiative?"

Russia, an ally of Damascus that has provided military backing to Assad's troops, has vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011. China joined Moscow in vetoing five resolutions.