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Evacuation underway

But cease-fire remains fragile in eastern Aleppo

Evacuations in eastern Aleppo underway, but cease-fire remains fragile

After some early setbacks, evacuations out of eastern Aleppo finally began Thursday morning, as the first convoy of buses and ambulances were confirmed to have left rebel-held areas of the besieged Syrian city.

The first evacuation was not without difficulties: Ambulances carrying wounded civilians out of eastern Aleppo on Thursday morning came under fire from government forces, rescuers said, with at least one emergency aid worker reportedly shot by a sniper while trying to clear a path for the convoy. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that 13 ambulances and 20 buses had departed eastern Aleppo, the Guardian reported. Syrian state TV reported that “4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated from eastern districts on Thursday” after recent weeks of bombings by government forces aided by Russian airstrikes.

The evacuation of rebels and civilians was originally set to start Wednesday, but a cease-fire negotiated between Russia and Turkey broke down less than 24 hours after it was announced, with both sides pushing the blame on the other. Fierce fighting continued for most of Wednesday, with Assad’s allied forces resuming shelling and airstrikes and rebels returning fire on the ground.

Though the current cease-fire is holding — the WHO said evacuations were “going smoothly” — concerns that fighting could resume at any moment remain. UN representative Jan Egeland stressed the importance of acting on the current opportunity to get civilians out while the cease-fire remained intact. 

Early reports of gun fire  

The Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, reported that a government sniper shot and injured one of its rescue workers while he was clearing a path for ambulances transferring wounded citizens out of Aleppo.

Additional reports indicated the ambulances themselves came under fire at one point as they attempted to leave the city. “The convoy was shot at by regime forces and we have three injured, one of them from civil defence. They were brought back to besieged areas,” ambulance service Ahmed Sweid told Orient TV, an outlet sympathetic to opposition forces.

The Red Cross confirmed that the evacuation of 200 wounded civilians, some of them in critical condition, was underway.  The organization is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent group to facilitate the evacuation.

Humanitarian organization Syria Charity said there were more than 1,300 injured civilians in eastern Aleppo. The organization posted footage of some of the injured boarding ambulances on Thursday morning ahead of evacuation. 

The charity subsequently confirmed that some of the injured had arrived at camps outside the city.

A second evacuation convoy is set to depart later Thursday. The buses are carrying the injured, civilians, and rebels to the nearby rebel-stronghold province of Idlib.

The operation to evacuate an estimated 50,000 people from besieged rebel-held areas will take at least two days, a senior Turkish official told Reuters.

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