Gulf Arab countries condemned on Thursday the Syrian regime’s handling of a ceasefire and evacuation in Aleppo and called for the protection of civilians trying to flee the war-torn city.
Arab League representatives held an emergency meeting at Qatar’s request to discuss the situation in Aleppo, where an evacuation of the rebel-held eastern part of the city has come under fire from fighters loyal to the Syrian regime.
“The Syrian regime and its allies have not only been content with destroying these cities one after the other, they persistently continue to brutally murder our Syrian brothers and sisters without any religious guidance or humanitarian ethics,” Saudi Arabian delegate Ahmed Kattan told the meeting in Cairo.
Arab League foreign ministers are expected to meet on Monday to discuss the situation further.
The evacuation of Aleppo’s last rebel enclave would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad.
The long-awaited operation to evacuate thousands of civilians and fighters from the last rebel stronghold in Aleppo was under way on Thursday, with the first ambulances and buses carrying wounded civilians leaving the Syrian city.
According to a Reuters reporter on the scene, a convoy of 10 ambulances and at least 17 green buses with nearly 1,000 aboard drove from the Ramousah district next to the rebel-held area of Aleppo, which was besieged for months by Syrian regime forces.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the evacuation of around 200 wounded people had started. Russia, a major ally of Assad, said 5,000 Syrian rebels and family members were being brought out of eastern Aleppo.
Earlier, ambulances trying to evacuate people came under fire from fighters loyal to the Syrian regime, who injured three people, a rescue service spokesman said.
“Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick and children, including orphans,” said Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian adviser for Syria.
Black fumes could be seen rising from the rebel-held area, where residents hoping to depart were burning personal belongings they do not want to leave for regime forces to loot. “Outside every building you see a small fire, papers, women’s clothes,” one resident told Reuters.
Russian soldiers were preparing to lead rebels out of Aleppo, the defense ministry in Moscow said. Syria had guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families, who would be taken towards Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria which is outside regime control.
Russia would use drones to monitor rebels and their families being transported in buses and ambulances along a humanitarian corridor, the ministry said.
The evacuation agreement would include the safe passage of wounded from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kefraya near Idlib that are besieged by rebels, according to a military media unit run by Hezbollah, a group allied to Assad. A convoy set off to evacuate the villages on Thursday, Syrian state media said.
On Wednesday, rebels attributed the holdup of the ceasefire and evacuation of the insurgent area of Aleppo to demands by Iranian-backed militias that the wounded in Foua and Kefraya should be taken to regime areas.
Efforts to evacuate eastern Aleppo began earlier in the week with a truce brokered by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkey, which has backed the opposition. That agreement broke down following renewed fighting on Wednesday and the evacuation did not take place then as planned.
An official from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said a new truce came into effect at 2.30am (0030GMT) on Thursday. Shortly before the new deal was announced, clashes raged in Aleppo.