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Russia says east Aleppo evacuations done, rebels disagree

Last Updated Dec 16, 2016 6:55 AM EST

Syrian state TV said evacuations of civilians and opposition fighters from eastern Aleppo were suspended Friday morning after rebels opened fire on a convoy at one of the crossing points of the rebel-held enclave.

Hours later, Russia claimed all women and children had been taken out of eastern Aleppo, and that a final sweep by the Syrian military was underway to clear out the remaining rebels in the city -- though there is no evidence on the ground of this. 

A statement on Friday from the Russian military’s Center for Reconciliation in Syria said the evacuations had been “completed.” 

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said more than 9,500 people, including 4,500 militants and 337 wounded people, had been evacuated -- all those who wished to leave, the Russians claimed. 

Opposition groups contested that, saying civilians were still trapped in eastern Aleppo.

“Only the wounded and some civilians left,” Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based representative of one rebel group operating in Aleppo told the Reuters news agency. “No fighters came out. Nobody came out. All that came out was three convoys.”

European and U.S. officials had estimated that there were 30,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo along with about 9,000 opposition fighters, prior to the evacuations beginning in earnest Thursday morning.   

There were also conflicting messages from Syrian officials, some of whom continued to tell Arab media outlets that the evacuations had merely been suspended, without elaborating.

Explosions and gunfire were heard earlier near at least one of the primary evacuation sites.

Syrian state TV also claimed the rebels had tried to take with them captives they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave, which would be a violation of the cease-fire deal agreed to allow the evacuations.

Lebanon’s Al-Manar Hezbollah TV said the Syrian army stopped the process because the rebels had violated the cease-fire deal. Hezbollah militiamen are fighting in the Syrian civil war alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV said buses that were parked at the Ramouseh crossing point left the area after it was targeted by gunmen.

A World Health Organization official in Aleppo confirmed to the Reuters news agency that the evacuation operations were aborted, and WHO, International Red Cross and Red Crescent staff told to leave the area with buses and ambulances.

Elizabeth Hoff said “nobody has the number” of people still trapped in eastern Aleppo but the WHO believed there to be a “high number of women and infants” and many other people still stuck and waiting to get out of the small opposition enclave.