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Evacuations from Aleppo fail to materialize despite lull

By Sarah El Deeb and Jamey Keaten Associated Press

BEIRUT – A cease-fire to allow wounded civilians and rebels to leave besieged parts of Aleppo has been extended into the weekend by Russia, but hoped-for medical evacuations didn’t materialize by Friday evening because of a lack of security guarantees, officials and residents said.

The dawn-to-dusk “humanitarian pause” that began Thursday will last into Saturday on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, said Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, speaking in Moscow. It had been due to expire Friday.

The lull had been greeted with high hopes by U.N. officials, and the Syrian government opened a new corridor for those wanting to flee the neighborhoods shattered by weeks of Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

But by Friday evening, no evacuations were seen along the corridor, reflecting the intractable nature of Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N.’s humanitarian aid agency, described an “astronomically difficult situation,” although he declined to specify who was responsible for the breakdown.

He told reporters in Geneva that the evacuations couldn’t begin “because the necessary conditions were not in place to ensure safe, secure and voluntary” movement of people.

A U.N. official told the Associated Press that Syrian opposition fighters were blocking the evacuations because the Syrian government and Russia were not holding up their end of the deal and were impeding deliveries of medical and humanitarian supplies into Aleppo.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity pending release of an official statement, said intensive efforts were under way in Damascus, Aleppo, Geneva and Gaziantep, Turkey, to try to move forward on the evacuations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said al-Qaida-linked militants in Aleppo were refusing to leave the city along the corridors created by the Russians and Syrian forces “despite the gestures of goodwill from Moscow and Damascus,” he told reporters in the Russian capital.

Militants from the al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front are believed to make up a minority of the several thousand fighters in the besieged district.

Rudskoi, of the Russian Defense Ministry, accused militants of firing at humanitarian corridors and using the break to prepare for an offensive.

“The terrorists are doing everything to prevent civilians and the militants from leaving eastern Aleppo,” he said. “All our requests to the American colleagues to put the pressure on the so-called moderate opposition to persuade them to end the shelling, let civilians leave or leave themselves, have been left unanswered.”

He said eight wounded militants left Thursday and were driven toward rebel-controlled Idlib, while seven civilians managed to flee at night.

The pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV showed video of government bulldozers that had opened a road, with buses and ambulances parked and waiting to take out evacuees.

Residents of eastern Aleppo have said many won’t use the corridors because there are no guarantees they won’t be arrested by government forces.

“No one has left the city so far,” said Mohammed Abu Rajab, who works at a hospital that was hit repeatedly in recent weeks, knocking it out of service. “People are worried they might be detained. There are no guarantees.”

Speaking by phone, he said any evacuations should be coordinated with the U.N. in order for people to feel they can leave safely.

Yasser al-Youssef, a member of the political bureau of the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group, said the opposition had agreed to the initiative to evacuate wounded and allow in aid, but the Syrian government and Russia gave no assurances the wounded would not face arrest.

Hamza al-Khatib, manager of an eastern Aleppo hospital that has been targeted frequently, said its staff used the pause to fortify walls, windows and entrances with sandbags.

“For sure, the situation will get worse after this pause. We are trying hard, but nothing will stand in face of the air raids,” al-Khatib said.

The U.N. had said it received assurances for the extension of the cease-fire until Monday, but the Kremlin didn’t confirm that, saying only that it was possible if militants don’t abuse it.

Also Friday, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an enhanced investigation of rights violations and abuses in Aleppo, a measure aimed at putting pressure on Russia.

The council voted 24-7, with 16 abstentions, at a special session on the “deteriorating situation of human rights” in Syria and in Aleppo. The resolution largely reiterated previous ones by the council, but it called on the Commission of Inquiry on Syria to specifically investigate crimes in Aleppo and report back to the 47-member body.

Britain spearheaded the resolution to put pressure on Russia, which was among those voting against it.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein had earlier told the council that Aleppo had become “a slaughterhouse” after weeks of bombardment.

Elsewhere in northern Syria, Turkish forces kept up bombing of areas controlled by Kurdish-led forces for a third straight day, a Syria monitoring group and a senior Kurdish commander said.

Commander Mahmoud Barkhadan of the main Syria Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units told AP there were no airstrikes Friday but artillery and rockets fell on their areas in northern Aleppo province. He said one fighter was killed.

Tension escalated Wednesday when Turkey targeted Kurdish-led forces in the area, where many groups are jostling for territory once held by Islamic State militants.

Intense clashes and shelling also erupted in the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, activists and residents said, with gunfire and shelling reverberating.