Syrian rebel group blames Iran for holding up Aleppo evacuation

AMMAN (Reuters) - A senior Syrian rebel blamed Iran and its Shi’ite militias on Saturday of holding up the evacuation of civilians trapped in the remaining rebel bastion in Aleppo and urged Russia to live up to its commitment to implement the deal.

People wait to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Munir al Sayal, the head of the political wing of the Ahrar al Sham rebel group involved in negotiations over the deal, said Iran was insisting people be allowed to leave two besieged Shi’ite villages before letting the Aleppo evacuation happen. He said Russia was failing to restrain its ally.

“Iran and its sectarian proxies are using the humanitarian situation of our people in besieged Aleppo and preventing civilians from leaving until the evacuation of their groups in al-Foua and Kefyra,” Sayal told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the last opposition-held area of Aleppo was suspended on Friday, its second day, after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people also be brought out of al-Foua and Kefraya, and protesters blocked the road out of Aleppo.

Sayal said Iranian-backed Shi’ite fighters led by Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia and other Iraqi Shi’ite groups were behind the detention of hundreds of people trying to leave on Friday, leading to some deaths before they were turned back, in an effort to disrupt the evacuation.

Numerous rebels and east Aleppo residents shared reports and videos of people fleeing the sound of shooting, being detained and returning home badly beaten and robbed of their possessions near a checkpoint as they tried to leave the city on Friday.

“These sectarian militias are responsible but we warn them the safety of our people in Aleppo is the priority and all options are open toward achieving that goal,” said Sayal, whose armed group has a countrywide presence and is particularly active in northwestern Syria.

The Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have played a leading role in the siege of rebel-held Aleppo and in the Syrian army’s retaking of near full control of the city.

A picture of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani in a war-torn street in Aleppo was circulating on social media on Saturday by supporters. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the photo.

Sayal said Moscow’s assertion that most civilians had already been evacuated from Aleppo showed Russia was trying to renege on its responsibilities under the deal. Thousands of hungry and cold civilians needed to be evacuated as soon as possible, he said.

The agreement to evacuate the civilians and fighters was reached mainly between Russia, whose aerial bombing of Aleppo played a critical role in the defeat of the insurgents, and Turkey, which backs the mainstream rebels, acting as a go-between for the main insurgent groups.

“Russia has failed to restrain the sectarian Shi’ite militias in Aleppo to complete the deal and Moscow should abide by its commitments,” Sayal said.

“There are still civilians in Aleppo who need to be evacuated in harsh weather conditions and Russian statements that besieged Aleppo is empty is absolving itself from following up on the agreement,” he added.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy