A new deal to evacuate civilians from east Aleppo has been reached, rebel officials said, after a day of intense shuttle diplomacy and violent bombardment in the opposition enclave.
Civilians and the wounded in east Aleppo were expected to begin evacuating from the city at 6am but it is as yet unclear if any have left.
By 8.30am local time a Syrian official source and the military news service of Damascus ally Hezbollah told Reuters that an operation to organise the departure of fighters from eastern Aleppo had started.
However, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has 100 volunteers and 10 ambulances ready, said the evacuation had not yet begun.
Under the terms of the deal, confirmed by two rebel officials, a ceasefire went into effect at 2.30am (00.30GMT) Aleppo time on Thursday.
A spokesperson for Noureddine al-Zinki, one of the armed opposition groups in Aleppo, said the deal would also allow the evacuation of wounded people in Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in Idlib province that are besieged by rebels.
The inclusion of Fua and Kefraya was a concession to Iran, which had opposed the previous ceasefire deal negotiated by Turkish intelligence and the Russian military.
An official from Ahrar al-Sham, another key rebel group, denied, however, that Fua and Kefraya were part of the deal, which was reached after Turkish mediation.
Sources in east Aleppo said shelling in the city had stopped at midnight local time.
The new ceasefire agreement came a day after a previous evacuation deal appeared to unravel in the face of Iranian opposition.
Tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped without food, water or medicine under a hail of artillery and airstrikes on Wednesday after Iranian-backed militia who had spearheaded the ground assault on eastern Aleppo defied a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey to allow residents and opposition fighters under siege to leave the city.
Doctors and other civilians, who hours earlier had expressed optimism that they would be able to evacuate eastern Aleppo, again implored the international community to put a stop to the fighting that had left their homes in ruins and allow them to seek a safe haven elsewhere.
“We will always remember and never forget how the criminals of the world forced Aleppo’s people to choose between two options, collective death or collective forced displacement, and we chose the lesser of the two crimes,” said one activist in a besieged opposition-held district.
Rebel officials and a source with knowledge of the negotiations indicated that the original deal had been undermined by Iranian intransigence and the actions of its proxies on the ground, some of whom have been accused of carrying out execution-style shootings of civilians, had violated the ceasefire.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, issued a joint statement on Wednesday night urging an end to the ceasefire violations and “reaffirmed their commitment to start the evacuation of civilians and the opposition through safe corridors as soon as possible”.
The original ceasefire was agreed on Tuesday by Turkish intelligence and the Russian military.
The evacuation of fighters and civilians to Idlib province had been intended to begin on Wednesday morning, but buses intended to transport them – decorated with posters of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – returned to their depots empty hours later as the Iranian-backed militias refused to allow the evacuation to proceed.
“Iran has prepared to invade our besieged areas and has defied Russia’s agreement,” said Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for the Noureddine al-Zenki rebel group.
Residents said shells had also fallen on the road on which the evacuations were supposed to take place.
Assad told Russia Today in an interview aired on Wednesday that western powers were seeking a ceasefire in Aleppo to stop the regime advance and save “the terrorists”.
The evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo would, however, mean the opposition would cede the city, the last significant urban stronghold where it maintained an active presence.
Civilians left in the opposition districts have been posting farewell messages on social media as the Iranian-backed militias and forces loyal to Assad rampaged through newly reclaimed neighbourhoods in what the UN described as a “meltdown of humanity”.
Many predicted they would either die once the regime’s forces reached their homes, or would be detained and tortured if they gave themselves up to them.
“Save us, people. Save us, people, world, anyone who has even a bit of humanity,” said one doctor in a voice message from a besieged district. “We beg you, we beg you, the dead and wounded are in the streets and people’s homes have collapsed on top of them. Save us. Save us.”
Another resident said: “We want to leave. We don’t want more massacres, let us leave. What is happening?”
The UN reported on Tuesday that the Iranian-backed militias, including the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, had carried out at least 82 “extrajudicial killings”, including of women and children who were living in opposition-controlled areas.
Reports of detentions and forced recruitment into the Syrian army have also proliferated in recent days as the regime has advanced through former rebel territory.
Residents said the bombardment on Wednesday, with artillery and airstrikes as well as alleged use of cluster bombs, had resumed at a pace greater even than before the ceasefire deal.
“This is an urgent distress call,” said another doctor, who on Tuesday night had told the Guardian he was saddened to leave Aleppo but happy that civilians would survive.
“Save the besieged districts of Aleppo. Since the early morning, the shelling has targeted all the besieged neighbourhoods with all types of weaponry. The dead are in the street, and so are the wounded, and there are no ambulances. Save Aleppo. An urgent distress call to every free person in the world.”
Another nurse, whose father and brother were killed on the same day earlier in the regime’s offensive, pleaded that civilians be spared. “A lot of shells and bombs are falling on us, no one can walk in the streets,” he said in a voice message. “Hundreds of shells and rockets. Please let us stay alive. Please pressure the regime to keep us safe. Please, from Aleppo, the last call.”
He added: “The medical situation is so bad. No ambulances, no cars, it’s a very horrible situation in our neighbourhoods. Please let our scream arrive to the whole world.”
Weeks of immense suffering and violence in eastern Aleppo since the Syrian regime and its allies began a final push into territory that had been in rebel hands since 2012 have left residents in total despair and increasingly angry at the international community for abandoning them to their fates.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the security council late on Tuesday that the Syrian government, along with Russia and Iran, bore responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Aleppo. She accused the three states of putting a noose around civilians in the city, asking: “Are you incapable of shame? … Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin? Is there literally nothing that shames you?”