Syrian forces pull back but Aleppo residents still waiting for aid

Trucks waiting near Turkey border as UN accuses Assad regime of failing to honour promise to let supplies through.
Children play with a bicycle near the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel-held Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Children play with a bicycle near the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel-held Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

ALEPPO // Desperate civilians in Syria are still waiting for much-needed aid to be delivered, even though the ceasefire has been extended for a further 48 hours.

The reason for the hold-up appeared to be the continuing presence of some troops from both the Syrian government and the rebel side on the Castello road, a key thoroughfare leading from the besieged city of Aleppo to the border with Turkey, where a convoy of lorries loaded with vital supplies were waiting to cross over into Syria.

But on Thursday evening, Russia – co-author with the United States of the ceasefire agreement – said Syrian regime forces had finally begun pulling back from the road.

“The Syrian armed forces are fulfilling their obligations and have started a gradual withdrawal of military hardware and all personnel from the Castello road, which will allow for the unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid to the eastern part of Aleppo,” said senior Russian officer Vladimir Savchenko in a televised briefing from Moscow.

However, another senior commander said rebel forces were not obeying the order to clear out of the Castello road area.

“The cessation of hostilities is not being fulfilled by the opposition units controlled by the US. Shelling continues, people are dying and houses are being destroyed,” senior commander Viktor Poznikhir said, hinting at renewed tensions between Moscow and Washington, who back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict..

The ceasefire deal that went into force at sunset on Monday calls for the demilitarisation of the Castello road, and Moscow had earlier said the Syrian army would start pulling back at 0600 GMT (10am UAE time) on Thursday.

But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, both government forces and rebel fighters remained on the road after that deadline and the army was not willing to pull back before opposition forces did so.

With the fighting halted, the United Nations pleaded with the Syrian government to allow the 40 aid lorries stuck in a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria to commence deliveries immediately.

“They’ve been waiting and sleeping at the border now for 48 hours, so they could go on a minute’s notice,” said Jan Egeland, head of the UN humanitarian task force for Syria.

The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura blamed the Syrian government for the delay, saying it insisted on “facilitation letters” or permits but had failed to provide them, reneging on an agreement struck 10 days ago – before the ceasefire – to allow aid into five areas.

“That is what makes a difference for the people, apart from seeing no more bombs or mortar shelling taking place,” said Mr de Mistura in Geneva. “It is particularly regrettable ... These are days which we should have used for convoys to move with the permits to go because there is no fighting.”

Moscow also accused Washington of failing to get rebels to separate on the ground from extremists, as per the ceasefire deal.

Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov slammed what he called “rhetorical fog” intended “to hide the fact that the US is not fulfilling its part of the obligations”.

“As of the third day [of the truce], only the Syrian army is observing the regime of silence. At the same time, the ‘moderate opposition’ led by the US is increasing the amount of attacks on residential districts,” said Mr Konashenkov said.

* Agencies

Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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