Aleppo evacuation suspended as al-Qaida-linked rebels block deal

A deal to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians from the besieged districts of east Aleppo has been suspended and is at risk of unravelling after al-Qaida linked fighters in Idlib province refused to allow a simultaneous evacuation of two pro-government villages. A source with knowledge of the Aleppo evacuation deal told the Guardian it was suspended over the refusal of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) to allow the evacuation of wounded people from Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in Idlib province that have been besieged by rebels for years. But by the early afternoon, a senior rebel source said the al-Qaida affiliate had given its consent to the deal. Rebels in Idlib are part of a predominantly Islamist coalition, of which JFS is one of the most powerful. The refusal risked reigniting large-scale fighting that threatens the lives of civilians who have yet to depart from the shrinking patch of territory under opposition control in east Aleppo, and who have lived for months with dwindling food and water supplies and no functioning hospitals. In a separate development on Friday, a girl blew herself up at a police station in the Midan neighbourhood in the capital, Damascus. The state-run Ikhbariya news channel showed blurred images of what looked like a blackened girl’s head in a blanket, and scenes of destruction. The Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said the suicide bomber was a seven-year-old. A witness in the area of the blast told Reuters a young girl entered the police station and, after asking to go to the toilet, blew herself up. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said there had been an explosion and that there were reports of casualties. If the evacuations of 400 wounded people from Fua and Kefraya occur as planned on Friday, it could allow the Aleppo evacuation to continue with supervision by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, hours after it appeared on the verge of collapse. About 8,000 people have already been evacuated from east Aleppo in buses, ambulances and private cars that left the besieged districts between Thursday and Friday morning. Buses and ambulances that had been waiting to evacuate more people left the departure zone after gunfire and explosions were heard. The evacuation of the Shia villages was part of the agreement reached on Wednesday night after Turkish and Russian mediation. The rebels blamed the regime for obstructing the evacuation, saying government forces fired on the evacuation road and are holding hostage 25 vehicles that left east Aleppo. The source with knowledge of the deal said the vehicles were detained after the suspension was announced, and the evacuees there are accompanied by ICRC and Red Crescent workers. A rebel source said negotiations were continuing to rescue the deal, but that Iran was deliberately attempting to undermine it by demanding a “Christmas wishlist” of concessions that include handing over the bodies of Shia fighters, releasing prisoners of war, and a full evacuation of all of the inhabitants of Fua and Kefraya. “The recent statements that you’re hearing from the Russians about the evacuation being over are false: they just lost control over the Iranians and they don’t want to look bad, so they’re saying the whole evacuation is over,” the source said, referring to an announcement on Russian state news agencies that the evacuation was over despite tens of thousands of civilians remaining in the rebel’s east Aleppo enclave. “Iranian militia, with the regime, are planning a massacre in east Aleppo and [of] the hostages,” the source added. The delicate operation to evacuate remaining civilians and fighters from east Aleppo began on Thursday and continued through the night. The SOHR said about 8,500 people had left the city, going to rebel-held territory in the west of the province. A ground assault led by Iranian-backed militias supporting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, began a campaign to recapture all of Aleppo in mid-November and had overrun more than 90% of the former rebel bastion before the evacuation began. The evacuation of the wounded from Fua and Kefraya was agreed as a concession to Iran, which blocked an initial ceasefire and evacuation deal that was negotiated on Tuesday night. Iran, also an ally of Assad, has demanded that Fua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels, be included in the ceasefire deal under which rebel fighters and civilians are leaving Aleppo, according to UN officials and rebels. Russia said it was convening Syrian peace talks for later this month that will be attended by Iran and Turkey but none of the Gulf states or western powers. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said the talks on 27 December would complement rather than compete with the UN-led Geneva peace process, and are being convened on the basis of retaining Syria as a unitary state. Source