By BASSEM MROUE
The evacuation of eastern Aleppo stalled Friday after an eruption of gunfire, as the Syrian government and rebels threw accusations at each other, raising fears that a peaceful surrender of the opposition enclave could fall apart with thousands of people believed to be still inside.
The government suspended the evacuation, pulling out buses that had been ferrying out people Friday morning and the day before, after reports of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave. The foreign minister of Turkey, a backer of the rebels, said he was in talks with his counterpart in Iran, a top ally of the Syrian government, to try to get the process back on track.
The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal under which civilians and fighters inside the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave in Aleppo were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.
It appeared to be linked to a separate evacuation to remove thousands of people from two government-held Shiite villages besieged by the rebels. The Syrian government says those evacuations and that in eastern Aleppo must be carried out at the same time under the cease-fire deal, but the rebels say there is no connection.
Syrian state media said rebels shelled a road that was supposed to be used by people evacuating from these two villages. The opposition’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters had cut the road to protest a lack of progress in the evacuations from Foua and Kfarya.
Buses that arrived at a collection point in Hama countryside to pick up people evacuating from the villages waited for hours without any evacuations happening.
Later Friday, two rebel spokesmen privy to the talks said the fighters besieging the two Shiite villages, including al-Qaida linked militant group Fatah al-Sham Front, have agreed to evacuate several hundred wounded from the Shiite villages. If it happens, this may lead to the resumption of evacuation from Aleppo.
There were differing reports on how many people had been evacuated from the enclave and how many remained inside, who would be in danger of being caught in the crossfire if the cease-fire falls apart. Reports by opposition activists and officials in eastern Aleppo ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians still inside the tiny enclave, along with some 6,000 fighters
The evacuations seal the end of the Syrian rebels’ most important stronghold — the eastern part of the city of Aleppo — and mark a watershed moment in the country’s civil war, now in its sixth year.
In announcing the suspensions, Syrian state TV also claimed that the rebels had tried to take captives with them, ones they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave from bitter battles to defend their territory from a ferocious, weeks-long onslaught by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.
The Lebanon-based pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV aired images Friday of public green buses reportedly returning evacuees to east Aleppo after the road was closed.
But despite the closure, scores of people and patients were apparently evacuated before the evacuation was suspended, according to the World Health Organization.
As of 7 a.m. on Friday, a total of 194 patients had been evacuated and taken to hospitals in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo province, nearby Idlib province or across the border into Turkey, said WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic. Among them, 65 were in critical condition, he said.
Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO’s Syria representative, said by phone from western Aleppo that there are still “high numbers of women and infants, children under five, that need to get out.”
Before the operation was suspended, dozens of green public buses and ambulances were parked in the southern Aleppo neighborhood of Ramouseh to evacuate more people from eastern Aleppo. Syrian state TV showed a truck with dozens of men, driving through the corridor leading to the rebel-held parts of the surrounding provinces.
Syrian state TV said that since the early hours of the day, four convoys have left Aleppo. It said some of the evacuees were using their own vehicles to leave.
Earlier on Friday, as the evacuations were resuming for a second day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a major new Syria peace initiative, saying he and his Turkish counterpart are working to set up Kazakhstan-based peace talks between Damascus and the opposition.
Speaking on a visit to Japan, Putin said that the negotiations would take place in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are also working for an overall truce in Syria. Putin said Ankara had helped broker the rebel exit from Aleppo currently underway.
However, the Western-backed Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the location Putin had proposed for the negotiations.
There have been contradicting reports of how many people were evacuated from Aleppo on Thursday. Syrian state TV said that more than 9,000 people were evacuated on Thursday alone. Syrian state TV said the evacuees included 3,475 men, 3,137 women, 2,359 children and 108 wounded people.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said about 4,000 civilians were taken out on Thursday. The Syrian state news agency said 2,300 opposition fighters and their families left Aleppo the previous night.
Russia, a key Assad ally, says that more than 6,462 people, including more than 3,000 rebels and 301 wounded, have been taken out.
For the opposition, the evacuation was a humiliating defeat. A smiling Assad called it a historic event comparable to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran.
Al-Mayadeen TV interviewed an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the central province of Hama who said that buses and ambulances were waiting to evacuate thousands of people from Foua and Kfarya — a last-minute condition that became part of the cease-fire deal for Aleppo.
The SARC official said they will likely begin the evacuation of 15,000 people from the Shiite northwestern villages, adding that the priority will be for the wounded, elderly people, women, children and those with chronic illnesses.
Syrian state TV said 110 buses and 19 medical teams were being prepared to take those being evacuated from the two Shiite villages. Iran had demanded to tie the evacuations from Foua and Kefraya with Aleppo’s.
Separately, Hezbollah’s media arm, Al-Manar TV, said Syrian government supporters closed the road used by evacuees form Aleppo, demanding the wounded from the two villages be allowed to leave.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had placed a call to Iranian Presidential Deputy Ishak Cihangiri, addressing regional bilateral issues in the context of recent developments in Aleppo.
Yildirim told Cihangiri he was confident Iran would take the necessary initiatives in order for the evacuation process to proceed smoothly, and that he was ready to cooperate with Tehran on the issue.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.