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Wounded await evacuation on day three of Aleppo truce

Aleppo (AFP): Hundreds of wounded civilians were stranded in rebel-held areas of Syria’s Aleppo Saturday as the UN said security concerns were again preventing evacuations despite Russia extending a ceasefire into a third day.

The unilateral “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian army’s devastating Russian-backed assault on the opposition-controlled east of the city has largely held since it began on Thursday morning.

The army says it is an opportunity for civilians and rebel fighters who lay down their arms to leave.

But so far only a handful of the 250,000 civilians still living in the rebel sector have left, and the UN’s plan to evacuate injured people has stalled.

An AFP photographer in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood at one of the crossings the army has set up for evacuations said it was deserted on Saturday morning.

After three months of siege by the army and nearly four weeks of relentless air strikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes, trust in government assurances of safe passage is minimal.

“Members of popular civil committees from regime districts entered the eastern neighbourhoods to try to evacuate the injured but failed,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian state media and Russian authorities have accused rebels in the east of preventing civilians from leaving and using them as “human shields.”

– UN evacuations on hold –

On Friday, the UN human rights council called for a special investigation into the violence in Aleppo in a resolution fiercely critical of Damascus.

More than 2,000 civilians have been wounded since the army launched its offensive to drive the rebels out of the eastern districts they have held since 2012. Nearly 500 people have been killed.

The United Nations had hoped to use the ceasefire to evacuate seriously wounded people, and possibly deliver aid.

But a UN official said on Saturday that for a second day the requisite security guarantees had not been received.

“You have various parties to the conflict and those with influence and they all have to be on the same page on this and they are not,” said David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian office in neighbouring Turkey.

He said discussions were continuing and UN staff and partner organisations were on standby in government-held west Aleppo to begin evacuations if an agreement is reached.

The UN has drawn up a four-day plan that would start with two days of medical evacuations to west Aleppo, rebel-held Idlib province, and Turkey, and continue with more evacuations as well as aid deliveries.

No aid has entered Aleppo since July 7 and food rations will run out by the end of the month, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned on Thursday.

In the face of a mounting international outcry over Aleppo’s plight, Moscow announced that the ceasefire, which was originally scheduled to last just eight hours, would be extended until 1600 GMT on Saturday.

But the UN has asked Russia to consider a further extension until Monday evening.

– Fears of renewed fighting –

Moscow accuses rebels in the east of the city of preventing civilians from leaving, with senior military official Sergei Rudskoi saying they were “doing everything to prevent the exit of civilians and members of armed groups from east Aleppo.”

“The terrorists are using the ceasefire in their interests,” he said.

“We are seeing them massing around Aleppo and preparing for another breakthrough into the city’s western neighbourhoods.”

The Observatory said both rebels and regime forces appeared to be bolstering their positions in preparation for renewed fighting if the truce collapsed.

“The regime and the rebels are both bolstering their forces, which raises fears of a massive military operation if the ceasefire fails,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The UN human rights council called in its resolution on Friday for “a comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo”, and for those responsible for the most serious violations to be identified.

The resolution demanded that warring parties “in particular the Syrian authorities and their allies”, allow unrestricted humanitarian access to desperate civilians and “end immediately all bombardments and military flights over Aleppo city”.

Also Friday, UN experts said the Syrian army was responsible for a March 2015 chemical weapons attack on the village of Qmenas.

But they said they were unable to determine who was responsible for two other chemical weapons attacks, one in the same month and the other in April 2014.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.