A "people swap" is underway in Aleppo, even after evacuation buses were torched

December 18, 2016, 11:33am

Buses evacuated ill and wounded residents, as well as orphaned children, from the besieged Syrian towns of al-Foua and Kefraya on Sunday after experiencing a setback in the morning when some vehicles came under attack and were set alight.

Syrian state media reported that “armed terrorists” from rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack on five buses, burning and destroying them, as they were on their way to collect evacuees. “It is not clear which rebel faction attacked the buses, but the area is a stronghold of al-Qaeda-linked forces,” NPR’s Alison Meuse reported.

No claim of responsibility has been issued.

The evacuation of those two majority-Shia towns in the Idlib province, which sits west of Aleppo, was agreed upon as part of a people-swap deal between pro-Syrian government forces and the rebels. Pro-government forces demanded that residents be evacuated in exchange for the resumed evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo, of which forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad seized control earlier this month after weeks of heavy fighting.

Thousands reportedly congregated in a square in eastern Aleppo on Saturday night and Sunday morning in anticipation for the evacuation from a city that the UN Secretary-general Ban Ki Moon described as a “synonym for hell.” Some reportedly slept in the streets in freezing temperatures overnight while warring factions brokered the deal, CBC reported.

The deal stipulated that 4,000 people in total would be evacuated from those two towns, which are under siege by rebel forces, Al-Jazeera reported, quoting an anonymous source in Aleppo. In exchange, around 1,500 residents of the towns Madaya and Zabadani, both in the Rif Dimashq province near Lebanon, and everyone in eastern Aleppo — all under government siege — would be permitted to evacuate.

Earlier evacuation efforts from eastern Aleppo crumbled earlier this week, amid conflicting reports that rebel fighters had opened fire on convoys at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Aleppo. Rebel fighters, meanwhile, said that pro-government forces were the ones opening fire, the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The United Nations security council is set to vote Sunday on a French-drafted resolution that would give UN officials unconditional access to Aleppo so that they can monitor the progress of evacuations and ensure the safety of civilians. Russia said on Sunday that it was preparing to veto that UN measure, AFP reported.