The Latest: Syrian opposition group supports call for talks

AP News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2016 4:26 PM
The Latest: Syrian opposition group supports call for talks

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the conflict in Syria where thousands more civilians and rebels are expected to leave the eastern part of the city of Aleppo under a key cease-fire deal (all times local):

10:25 p.m.

An official with Syria's main opposition group says it supports Russia's call for resumed peace talks, but wants them to take place under United Nations auspices.

Bassma Kodmani of the High Negotiations Committee spoke to The Associated Press by phone after Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement earlier Friday of a peace initiative brokered with Turkey in which Astana, Kazakhstan would host talks between Syrian government and opposition representatives.

Kodmani says the HNC is "completely in favor of those talks, but we want them under U.N. auspices." She called on Russia to seek a process "acceptable to credible opposition and regional players."

She said the HNC doesn't believe Astana was "the appropriate place."

Several rounds of U.N.-mediated indirect peace talks this year in Geneva suspended with no progress amid new fighting.

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9:40 p.m.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power says she's in favor of a French-drafted U.N. resolution calling for independent international monitors to oversee the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from war-torn Aleppo.

However, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was not as quick to embrace the plan, saying "it takes weeks to deploy observers."

Power's and Churkin's comments to reporters came after a closed Security Council meeting on the Syrian government takeover of eastern Aleppo, which had been a rebel stronghold in the civil war since 2012.

Power said the Security Council could possibly vote this weekend, but if there is a stalemate, an emergency special session of the General Assembly is possible. Churkin opposes that idea.

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9:15 p.m.

An official with Syria's main opposition group says it supports Russia's call for resumed peace talks, but wants them to take place under United Nations auspices.

Bassma Kodmani of the High Negotiations Committee spoke to The Associated Press by phone after Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement earlier Friday of a peace initiative brokered with Turkey in which Astana, Kazakhstan would host talks between the Syrian government and opposition representatives.

Kodmani says the HNC is "completely in favor of those talks, but we want them under U.N. auspices." She called on Russia to "go for a serious process that is acceptable to credible opposition and regional players."

She said the HNC doesn't believe Astana is "the appropriate place."

Several rounds of U.N.-mediated indirect peace talks this year in Geneva yielded no progress amid renewed fighting.

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8:30 p.m.

Outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the U.N. stands ready to assist as needed to help rescue as many people as possible from besieged Aleppo — even as an overnight rescue operation had to be suspended due to fighting.

Ban, speaking to reporters during his final news conference at U.N. headquarters on Friday, described the war in Syria as "heart-breaking" for him.

Ban said thousands of people had evacuated from eastern Aleppo overnight with the help of U.N. agencies, the Red Cross and the Arab Red Crescent, including 194 patients who were taken to hospitals in other parts of Syria and Turkey.

"I feel very much regret we had to stop this operation at this time," he said.

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7:15 p.m.

Russia's U.N. ambassador says the most urgent task now in Syria is to end all military activities and resume negotiations between the government and opposition.

Vitaly Churkin has told the Security Council on Friday that "Damascus has more than once confirmed its readiness to take part in these negotiations."

Churkin reiterated that from the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia has been in favor of a peaceful resolution while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

Evacuations from eastern Aleppo seal the end of the Syrian rebels' most important stronghold and mark a watershed moment in the country's civil war, now in its sixth year.

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6 p.m.

France's Ambassador to the United Nations says his country and Germany have called an emergency meeting of the Security Council to consider the situation in war-torn Aleppo.

Francois Delattre said the meeting would take place Friday and that if an agreement can't be reached on safely evacuating civilians and enabling humanitarian aid under the watchful eye of international observers, members could call for an emergency special session of the 193-member General Assembly.

Delattre told reporters outside Security Council chambers that the meeting would include a briefing by Humanitarian Affairs chief Stephen O'Brien.

He said France has already begun drafting a resolution for consideration by the council.

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5:30 p.m.

Syria's state news agency SANA is reporting an explosion outside a police station in the capital Damascus.

The agency had no immediate word on casualties.

SANA said the blast occurred in the central Midan neighborhood, a main market area that is usually crowded on Fridays.

The number of explosions in the capital dropped sharply over the past year due to tightened security measures and checkpoints searching cars around the capital.

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5 p.m.

A top U.N. official for Syria is calling on its government, its allies Russia and Iran, and a leading rebel group to allow for a resumption of evacuations from besieged parts of eastern Aleppo.

In a text message to The Associated Press on Friday, Jan Egeland of the office of the U.N. Syria envoy praised the "very successful" evacuations over the last day that "brought many thousands of civilians to safety" — but added that others are trying to leave too.

Egeland said: "Among those desperate to be evacuated are a group of orphans and unaccompanied children."

He said his office was urging "parties the ground, including Syria, Iran, Russia, and the armed opposition groups led by Ahrar al-Sham to let the evacuations resume unimpeded and in safety."

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4:45 p.m.

Syrian state TV says buses are heading to the two Shiite villages besieged by armed groups to evacuate a number of humanitarian cases.

The state TV announcement Friday came hours after the evacuation of the embattled part of eastern Aleppo was suspended, apparently a final pressure card to push for the evacuation of the Shiite villages in northern Syria. Rebels had previously rejected linking the two evacuations, saying evacuating the Shiite villages is related to another separate deal.

Two rebel spokesmen privy to the talks say the fighters besieging the two Shiite villages, including al-Qaida linked militant group Fatah al-Sham Front, have agreed to evacuate several hundred wounded from the Shiite villages. If it happens, this may lead to the resumption of evacuation from Aleppo.

Thousands of Aleppo residents are believed still stuck in the enclave surrounded by government forces.

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4 p.m.

Turkey's foreign minister says 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the Syrian city of Aleppo and that he has intensively reached out to Tehran in a bid to keep the process on track.

Speaking in Ankara on Friday, Mevlut Cavusoglu said there had been a "hold up with the latest convoy" and that he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, "in an effort to overcome this."

Cavusoglu said other officials, including Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were speaking to their Russian and Iranian equivalents as well as the different players of the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed on Friday, saying that rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave.

Turkish state-media is blaming Iran, which is active in the Syrian conflict and the frontline of Aleppo, for the flare up of hostilities that held up the convoy.

Cavusoglu blamed the Syrian regime which has the backing of Moscow and Tehran. Ankara is one of many to say Assad's regime has committed war crimes in Aleppo and in the course of the Syrian conflict.

He said those who evacuated Aleppo since the start of the process on Thursday were civilians and suggested that they wanted to remain inside Syria, where Turkey is raising tented camps to accommodate them.

The minister re-iterated that his country would take in the most vulnerable — including the old, children and sick — but would consider allowing more in later if "there's a need."

"But it looks like those people, with the hope of returning to Aleppo one day, want to remain within Syria even if there are safer areas available," he told reporters.

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2:45 p.m.

The U.N. health agency's top official in Syria says negotiations are underway in hopes of resuming evacuations from rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo.

Elizabeth Hoff, the Syria representative for the World Health Organization, says that the agency knows "there are a large number of women and children, and there are others, who are still inside and want to get out."

She spoke by phone on Friday with The Associated Press from government-controlled western Aleppo, after Russia's military claimed that all women and children had been taken out of eastern Aleppo during evacuations that began a day earlier involving WHO help.

Hoff says that "negotiations are ongoing" through the office of the U.N. envoy for Syria to try to restart the evacuations. She says she has no indication that the evacuations have been completed.

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1:45 p.m.

Russia is claiming that all women and children have been taken out of eastern Aleppo and that a final sweep by the Syrian military is underway to clear out the last 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 says the evacuations have been "completed." It came shortly after the Syrian government said it was suspending the evacuations because a convoy leaving Aleppo was fired on by the rebels.

The U.N. and international aid agencies insist there are still people in eastern Aleppo waiting to be evacuated.

The Russian statement claims Russia said that over 9,500 people, including more than 4,500 rebels and 337 wounded, have been taken out of the rebel-held districts in eastern Aleppo.

The Russian military also says some die-hard militants have stayed behind and are firing on the Syrian government troops.

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1:05 p.m.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross is urging all parties in Syria to ensure that the evacuations from Aleppo resume.

ICRC's regional director Robert Mardini posted on Twitter that, "Regretfully, the operation was put on hold. We urge the parties to ensure it can be relaunched & proceed in the right conditions."

The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo hours after they resumed on Friday, saying that rebels opened fire on a convoy with evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave.

A Syrian rebel spokesman, Yasser al-Youssef of the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group, claimed pro-government forces had opened fire on the convoy and also confiscated 25 private cars belonging to the Aleppo evacuees.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency says "pro-regime terrorists groups" had opened fire on the convoy in Aleppo.

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1 p.m.

A Syrian rebel spokesman says government forces opened fire on the road used for evacuations from eastern Aleppo, leading to the suspension in the process.

Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group, says the government forces also confiscated 25 private cars belonging to Aleppo residents on Friday.

He says he is convinced the government is trying to link the Aleppo evacuations to those from two Shiite villages in the country's northwest besieged by rebels

Syrian state TV blamed opposition fighters, saying they opened fire on a convoy on the road evacuating people from eastern Aleppo.

Hezbollah's Military Media says government supporters had blocked a road used by evacuees from Aleppo, demanding the wounded in the Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya be allowed to leave.

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12:45 p.m.

Turkey's state-run news agency claims forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad attacked a convoy of people being evacuated from the rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo, which led to the suspension of evacuations.

That claim is contrary to Damascus' statement that rebels opened fire on a convoy with evacuees on Friday, forcing the government to suspend the evacuations.

Anadolu Agency says "pro-regime terrorists groups" had opened fire on the convoy, adding that a "pro-regime crowd gathering on the road is also preventing the passage of vehicles."

Turkey, which helped broker the evacuation deal, has been a main supporter of armed opposition groups fighting to topple Assad. Ankara, with Moscow, helped negotiate a cease-fire between the warring parties in Syria to allow the evacuations from eastern Aleppo.

Moscow, along with Tehran, has given critical military support to the Damascus government and helped turn the course of the war in Assad's favor.

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12:35 p.m.

The World Health Organization's top representative in Syria says she hopes the suspension of evacuations of civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo is only temporary and that the process would resume soon.

Elizabeth Hoff says WHO staffers at the Ramouseh crossing point with the rebel enclave who were assisting in the operation were told "without explanation" to leave the area.

Hoff spoke to reporters at U.N. offices in Geneva by phone from western, government-controlled part of the city of Aleppo.

She says many women and children in eastern Aleppo had gathered to wait for buses and ambulances to return and take them out on Friday, but were now compelled to go back home.

Hoff says that "this is a great concern to us because we know that they are desperate to get out."

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11:35 a.m.

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

It wasn't immediately clear how long the suspension, which was announced within a couple of hours after the evacuations resumed on Friday, would last.

The Syrian state TV also claims the rebels tried to take with them captive they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave.

Lebanon's Al-Manar Hezbollah TV says 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 says buses that were parked at the Ramouseh crossing point left the area after it was targeted by gunmen.

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11:05 a.m.

A Turkish official says Turkey's aid organizations are helping Syrians who have been evacuated from the city of Aleppo to a border area held by the opposition in Syria's Idlib province.

Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said on Friday that "20 buses from Aleppo have reached the safe zone under control of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib." He says about 30-35 wounded people being treated at the Sahra hospital just on the other side of the border.

Kaynak said there had been a discussion with Syrian opposition forces over the possibility of establishing a center "within a security zone in Syria." He told the private Dogan news agency that "Idlib has no physical capacity to accommodate so many people."

Kaynak estimated there are 80,000 to 100,000 individuals who would like to leave Aleppo under the cease-fire deal that Turkey helped broker.

He added that Turke is willing to provide assistance to "legitimate" Syrian opposition groups to help meet their needs. The minister spoke after visiting the Cilvegozu border crossing with Syria in southern Turkey

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10:55 a.m.

Syrian state TV says that evacuations of civilians and rebels from the last rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo have resumed for the second day.

Ikhbariya TV is reporting that four convoys with fighters and civilians departed from the rebel enclave on Friday.

The TV has shown dozens of green public buses and ambulances parked in the southern Aleppo neighborhood of Ramouseh to help in the evacuation. It then showed trucks and other vehicles ferrying residents of eastern Aleppo and driving through the corridor leading to rebel-controlled areas in the countryside.

Meanwhile, in the central province of Hama, buses and ambulances are waiting to evacuate thousands of people from two Shiite villages besieged by rebels, a last-minute condition that became part of the cease-fire deal for Aleppo. Iran had demanded that the evacuations from Foua and Kefraya be ted with the mass movement out of eastern Aleppo.

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9:35 a.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says that he and his Turkish counterpart are working to launch a new round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition — negotiations that would take place in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

Putin, who spoke on a visit to Japan on Friday, says that Ankara had helped broker the rebel exit from Aleppo that is currently underway. He says he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are also working for an overall truce in Syria.

The Russian leader says that once the Syrian army secures control of all of Aleppo, civilians will be able to return to their homes.

It wasn't immediately clear if western-backed Syrian opposition would accept such a location for peace talks with President Bashar Assad's government.

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9:20 a.m.

Thousands more are expected to leave eastern Aleppo in the coming hours under a cease-fire deal that effectively surrendered the last rebel-held part of the city to Syrian government control. There are conflicting numbers on how many have been evacuated from Aleppo so far as part of a Turkey- and Russia-brokered cease-fire deal to transfer all still in the rebel enclave to rebel-held areas in the countryside.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says about 4,000 civilians were taken out on Thursday. Syrian state news agency says 2,300 opposition fighters and their families left Aleppo the previous night.

Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, says that more than 6,462 people, including more than 3,000 rebels and 301 wounded, have been taken out.