Palmyra: Syrian forces ‘enter’ IS-held town

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Media captionA look inside the ruins after they were recaptured from so-called Islamic State in March 2016

Syrian government forces have entered the ancient city of Palmyra, pushing back militants from so-called Islamic State (IS), activists say.

The troops and their allies, backed by Russian air strikes, have reportedly seized part of a neighbourhood in the west of the city.

The jihadists recaptured the Unesco-listed archaeological site in December from government forces.

Parts of the ancient city have been destroyed by the militants.

There were clashes and heavy shelling across the historic city as the offensive unfolded, the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A media unit run by the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement said earlier that the pro-government forces had reached the citadel, which sits on a hill overlooking the famous Roman-era ruins.

The Syrian government troops also seized a strategic area known as the “Palmyra triangle”, the official Sana news agency reported.

INTERACTIVESee the damage to the ancient ruins

10 January 2017

Satellite image of Palmyra

26 December 2016

Satellite image of Palmyra

IS held the ruins and the nearby city, known locally as Tadmur, for 10 months after seizing it for the first time in May 2015. It blew up temples, burial towers and the Arch of Triumph, believing shrines and statues to be idolatrous.

They also destroyed the Temple of Bel – the great sanctuary of the Palmyrene gods – which had been one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st Century AD in the East.


Ancient city of Palmyra

  • Unesco World Heritage site
  • Site contains monumental ruins of great city, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world
  • Art and architecture, from the 1st and 2nd centuries, combine Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences
  • More than 1,000 columns, a Roman aqueduct and a formidable necropolis of more than 500 tombs made up the archaeological site
  • More than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year before the Syrian conflict

The militants were then forced out by a Russian-backed government offensive in March 2016, but regained control while pro-government forces where focused on battling for the city of Aleppo late last year.

In January, satellite images revealed that the group destroyed the tetrapylon – a group of four pillared structures which were mainly modern replicas – and part of the Roman Theatre.

Palmyra sites graphic

Meanwhile, the US said positions held by the their allies of the Syrian Arab Coalition were bombed by Russian and Syrian aircraft near the IS-held town of al-Bab, in northern Syria.

“I believe they thought were held by ISIS, yet they were actually – on the ground – were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces,” Lt Gen Stephen Townsend told reporters, using an acronym for IS.

Syria war: Russia and China veto sanctions

 

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A UN chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a bag containing samples from a site of an alleged chemical weapons attackImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionUN investigations have said that the Syrian government carried out three chemical weapons attacks

Russia and China have vetoed a UN resolution to impose sanctions on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons.

It is the seventh time Russia has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to protect the Syrian government.

China has also vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the civil war began in 2011.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under an agreement negotiated between Russia and the US.

What is Syria accused of?

The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is accused of carrying out chemical attacks on its own civilians – a charge it denies.

However, investigations by the UN and international chemical weapons watchdog have found that Syrian government forces carried out three chemical weapons attacks in 2014 and 2015.

A boy who activists say was affected by a gas attack receives treatment at Bab al-Hawa hospitalImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionChlorine irritates people’s eyes and skin and can burn the lungs

The reports said that Syrian air force helicopters had dropped chlorine gas on rebel-held areas, twice in March 2015 and once in April 2014.

The use of chlorine as a weapon is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Islamic State (IS) militants had also used sulphur-mustard gas in an attack, the watchdog found.


Read more:

Syria blamed for chemical weapons attack

Why is Russia engaged in Aleppo?

Syria: The story of the conflict


What did the UN resolution say?

Tuesday’s resolution had been drafted by the US, the UK and France.

It would have banned the sale of helicopters to Syria and would have led to sanctions against 11 Syrian commanders or officials, and 10 groups linked to the chemical attacks.

Nine Security Council members supported the resolution, while three – China, Russia and Bolivia – voted against it.

The final three members – Egypt, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia – abstained.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov raises his arm to vote against a United Nations Security Council resolutionImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionRussia vetoed the resolution, saying the vote was “based on the anti-regime doctrine of western states”

A Security Council resolution needs nine votes in support, and no vetoes from the five permanent members (the US, France, Russia, UK and China) in order to pass.

Why did Russia and China veto the resolution?

Russian President Vladimir Putin had said sanctions against Syria would be “totally inappropriate”, saying “it would only hurt or undermine confidence” in peace talks.

Moscow has long-standing links to Syria, with many Syrian military officers trained and equipped by Russia.

An undated handout photo from the Russian military appears to show Russian troops in an armoured vehicle in Aleppo, SyriaImage copyrightAP
Image captionRussia has had troops deployed in Syria

Moscow says its military and political support for the Syrian government has helped the fight against IS militants.

But Western critics accuse Moscow of targeting opposition groups backed by the West.

Meanwhile, China’s UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said Beijing opposed the use of chemical weapons but that it was too soon to impose sanctions as investigations were still ongoing.

Liu Jieyi at the United NationsImage copyrightAP
Image captionMr Liu said it was too early to reach a final conclusion on who carried out the chemical attacks

China has said in the past that it has a long-standing policy of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs.

Analysts say China may be worried that some of its Muslim populations in western Xinjiang have joined militant groups fighting in Syria.

China’s stake in the Syria stand-off

What do sanctions supporters say?

Nikki Haley at the UNImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe US has accused Russia of “babysitting” the Syrian government

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said: “It is a sad day on the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people.

“They put their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security… the world is definitely a more dangerous place.”

UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said: “Not taking action against chemical weapons’ use undermines confidence in the international community’s ability to tackle flagrant violations of international law – and undermines the trust of Syrians affected by these horrific attacks.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia bore a “heavy responsibility toward the Syrian people and humanity as a whole”.

Syria war: Air strikes kill 25 jihadists in Idlib province, monitors say

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Members of the former Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, on 2 December, 2014Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Nusra Front, announced its split from al-Qaeda last year

Air strikes in northern Syria have killed at least 25 members of a prominent jihadist group, including senior figures, monitors say.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it is not clear who carried out the attack against the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly known as Nusra Front.

Russia and Turkey say the group is not included in a ceasefire deal in Syria.

Meanwhile, rebel groups say they are halting preparations for peace talks.

A statement signed by a number of groups cited “many big breaches” by the Syrian government and its allies as a reason.

The ceasefire was brokered by Turkey and Russia last Thursday and has mostly held since then. Peace talks were planned for later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan.

A rebel fighter carries his weapon inside a damaged building on the forth day of the truce, on al-Rayhan village front near the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern DamascusImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionRebels have accused the Syrian government and its allies of breaching the ceasefire

The Syrian Observatory said it could not determine if the strikes, in the countryside of Idlib province, were carried out by the US-led coalition or Russia.

Among the dead were leading members of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was holding a meeting there, the Observatory added, without identifying them. Many others were wounded, it said.

Abu Anas al-Shami, a Jabhat Fateh al-Sham spokesman, said in a statement the attacks were carried out by the US-led coalition.

“The headquarters targeted by the international coalition a short time ago are a main headquarters for that area and contains a number branch offices, leading to the killing of the brothers,” he said in a statement quoted by Reuters news agency.

Map showing who controls the north west of Syria - 28 December 2016

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham changed its name last July and announced it was splitting from al-Qaeda.

Members of the group are currently operating as part of a rebel alliance that controls Idlib province, the main rebel stronghold after eastern Aleppo was retaken by Syrian government forces last month.

As well as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the ceasefire deal excludes so-called Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia, according to the Syrian army, but the exclusion is disputed by the rebels.

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Syria conflict: Clashes reported despite truce

 

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A man cycles past a damaged building in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma (30 December 2016)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionOpposition activists said the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was shelled on Friday

Fighting between government and rebel forces has been reported in parts of Syria despite a nationwide truce coming into force early on Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said there had been fierce clashes and air strikes in northern Hama province.

It added that rebel-held Wadi Barada near Damascus was also bombarded. But the military denied doing so.

There has been no comment from Turkey and Russia, which brokered the truce.

The rival jihadist groups, Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and the Kurdish YPG militia are excluded from the initiative, which is aimed at restarting peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana next month.

Reports of clashes emerged within hours of the truce starting at midnight local time on Friday (22:00 GMT on Thursday).

Aleppo, 23 DecImage copyrightEPA
Image captionThe truce comes a week after the Syrian army’s successful operation to retake Aleppo

The Syrian Observatory said government warplanes had carried out 16 air strikes on rebel-held areas in the northern countryside of Hama province during the day on Friday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, said the town of Halfaya had been targeted.

The Syrian Observatory and LCC also reported fighting in Wadi Barada, a valley in the mountains north-west of Damascus.

Map showing control of Damascus countryside (28 December 2016)

They said helicopters had attacked the village of Basima and positions held by rebels and allied jihadists from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was known as al-Nusra Front until it formally broke ties with al-Qaeda in July.

But a Syrian military media unit denied that troops had shelled Wadi Barada and accused the opposition of aiming to show it was not abiding by the truce.


The new kingmaker – Lyse Doucet, BBC chief international correspondent

This deal was declared before it was done and dusted. Seven groups said to have signed up include Ahrar al-Sham, which Moscow and Damascus have always described as terrorists. Ahrar al-Sham says it has “reservations”. Do they have anything to do with backers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

But a new top table has been forged before a new US president enters the scene. Russia is confirmed as the foreign force which matters. Turkey displaced the US as kingmaker on the other side. It has bargaining chips and, most of all, wants to stop the sway of Syrian Kurdish forces, who are US allies.

Many opposition fighters will welcome a pause after their stinging defeat in Aleppo. But they and Turkey still want President Assad to step down. That conflicts with Iran, the other key player, as well as Mr Assad’s own circles. But that’s for the next round in this new great game which could be talks in Astana, in Russia’s orbit.


The UN expressed concern about the fighting in Wadi Barada on Thursday, saying combatants were deliberately targeting and damaging springs used to supply some four million people in the Damascus area with drinking water.

The LCC also reported on Friday that government shellfire had caused casualties in rebel-held Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus.

A Syrian solider assists people in filling their jerry-cans in Damascus, Syria (29 December 2016)Image copyrightEPA
Image captionDamascus residents have had their water supply affected by the fighting in Wadi Barada

Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a teacher who was living in a rebel-held enclave in the northern city of Aleppo before being evacuated as part of a deal negotiated by Turkey and Russia earlier this month, said he was not optimistic.

“I can sleep a bit better and not wake up during the night in fear. But we have also experienced many ceasefires in the past and they don’t last,” he told the BBC.

“I believe [government forces] use that time to prepare their troops, and fix their planes and then they just target us again.”

Syrian opposition supporters take part in a a protest calling for the overthrow of Syria's government in the city of Idlib (30 December 2016)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionOpposition supporters took the opportunity to protest in the rebel-held city of Idlib

Meanwhile, Turkish military officials said Russian aircraft had carried out three air strikes against IS militants around the northern town of al-Bab.

The strikes appeared to be the first Russian support for a Turkish-backed rebel offensive aimed at recapturing the last IS stronghold in Aleppo province.

Russia has carried out an air campaign against President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents since September 2015, while Turkey supports the rebellion.


Who is included by the truce agreement?

On the one side, Syrian government forces, allied militias and the Russian military.

On the other, a loose alliance of moderate rebel factions that operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), plus several other groups.

Rebel fighters in al-Rai, in northern Aleppo provinceImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionRebel fighters in al-Rai, in northern Aleppo province

The Russian defence ministry named seven “moderate opposition formations” included in the truce as Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Jaysh Idlib and Jabhah al-Shamiya.

Ahrar al-Sham, which said it had “reservations” about the deal, and Jaysh al-Islam are Islamist groups that Russia has previously described as terrorist organisations.


Who is not included?

The jihadist groups Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, “and the groups affiliated to them”, are not part of the agreement, according to the Syrian army.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham said on Friday it would continue to fight Bashar al-Assad, with a spokesman for the group saying the political solution under the truce would “reproduce the criminal regime”.

Members of the group are currently operating as part of a rebel alliance that controls Idlib province.

Kurdish YPG fightersImage copyrightAP
Image captionWhat will happen to Kurdish YPG fighters?

The FSA also said the deal did not include the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG). The militia, which has captured large swathes of north-eastern Syria from IS with US support, is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey.


Where does it cover and what are the terms?

It is nominally nationwide, although that really only covers the areas where the sides who have signed up have a presence – western Syria.

Map showing control of Syria and Iraq (28 December 2016)

Swathes of central and eastern Syria are under IS or Kurdish control.

Under the terms of the deal, talks on a political solution to end the civil war should begin within a month of the start of the truce and would be held in Kazakhstan.

Syria conflict: Ceasefire agreed, backed by Russia and Turkey

 

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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stand atop a damaged tank near Umayyad mosque, in Aleppo, 13 DecemberImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionAleppo saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war

The Syrian government and rebel groups have agreed a nationwide ceasefire from midnight (22:00 GMT) on Thursday.

The deal was announced by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and confirmed by Turkey. The two nations, which back opposing sides, will act as guarantors.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), regarded by the UN as Syria’s main opposition body, confirmed the deal, which excludes jihadist groups.

If the truce holds, peace talks will be held in Kazakhstan within a month.

At least 300,000 people are believed to have been killed in fighting that followed the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

A further four million have fled the country to seek refuge in neighbouring states or Europe.

How Moscow’s Syria campaign has paid off for Putin

Aleppo: Before and after the battle

Why is there a war in Syria?

Who is included in the deal?

On the one side, Syrian government forces, their factional allies and the Russian military.

On the other, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of several moderate rebel factions, plus other groups under the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the umbrella group representing Syria’s political and armed opposition factions.

FSA spokesman Osama Abu Zaid said there were 13 armed opposition factions in all who had signed up.

Osama Abu Zaid:Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionOsama Abu Zaid: No future for Bashar al-Assad

The Russian defence ministry listed seven of the main rebel groups included in the truce as Faylaq al-Sham; Ahrar al-Sham; Jaysh al-Islam; Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham; Jaysh al-Mujahidin; Jaysh Idlib and al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah.

Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) are the key names, neither of them part of the FSA.

Who is not included?

Jihadists. So-called Islamic State (IS) “and the groups affiliated to them” are not part of the agreement, Syria’s army confirmed.

It also said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) was excluded. However, some rebel officials told Reuters it was part of the deal, giving a hint of the complications that lie ahead.

This is because JFS is intrinsically linked in Idlib province to groups that have signed up to the truce.

Kurdish YPG fightersImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionHow will the Kurdish YPG react?

The FSA also said that the deal did not include the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, along with other Kurdish militias, controls a large area of northern Syria up the Turkish border. It is regarded by Turkey as a terrorist organisation and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

What are the terms and where does it cover?

It is nominally nationwide, although that really only covers the areas where the sides who have signed up to the truce have a presence.

Map showing control of Syria and Iraq (19 December 2016)

Looking at the map, there are large swathes under both jihadist and Kurdish control.

One area that is included is the rebel-held area of Ghouta in eastern Damascus, where government forces have been advancing in recent months.

Announcing the deal in Moscow, Mr Putin said there were three key points:

  • Ceasefire between the two sides
  • Measures for overseeing the truce
  • An agreement to start peace talks

Under the terms of the deal, the peace talks would begin within a month of the ceasefire taking effect – and holding – and would be held in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

The Kurdish YPG would not take part in the peace talks, the FSA said.

Damaged building in Douma, in eastern DamascusImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe eastern suburbs of Damascus are included in the ceasefire deal

How did the ceasefire come about and can it hold?

Previous ceasefire initiatives this year brokered by the UN, or the US acting with Russia, quickly collapsed.

But earlier this month, Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in Syria’s second city, Aleppo, that led to tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians being evacuated from an enclave besieged by government forces.

AleppoImage copyrightEPA
Image captionThe new deal follows the evacuation of Aleppo

The fact that the rebels have been losing ground may help this truce.

The HNC admitted on Thursday that, because of the rebels’ limited resources against government forces and their allies, it was “not possible to continue” the fight.

What has the reaction to the deal been?

Mr Putin himself described the deal as “fragile”.

He said Russia would cut its military presence in Syria but made it clear Moscow would “continue fighting international terrorism and supporting the Syrian government”.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said there was now a “real chance of finding a political solution” but that the rebels taking part must distance themselves from IS and former al-Qaeda fighters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a “window of opportunity” had been created that “should not be wasted”. He vowed to continue fighting IS and “terrorist groups”.

UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de MisturaImage copyrightEPA
Image captionUN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the deal

Difficulties lie ahead in peace talks. Turkey has already called for the Lebanese Hezbollah movement – linked to Syria’s ally Iran – to leave Syrian soil, which is sure to cause problems.

UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the new deal, saying he hoped it would save lives and improve aid delivery.

“These developments should contribute to inclusive and productive intra-Syrian negotiations to be convened under UN auspices on 8 February,” he said.

The US state department said the deal was a “positive development” which it hoped would be “implemented and fully respected by all parties”.

One rebel commander told Reuters: “This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input.”

The FSA said it would abide by the truce but would retaliate against violations by government forces and their allies.

The FSA’s Osama Abu Zaid said it had so far had no direct talks with the Syrian government and still insisted that President Assad would have no place in the future of Syria.

Aleppo battle: Syrian city ‘back under government control’

 

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Syrian rebel fighters, arrive in the opposition-controlled Khan al-Assal region, west of Aleppo after being evacuated from the embattled cityImage copyrightAFP
Image captionMore than 34,000 people have been evacuated since last Thursday

The Syrian army says it has retaken control of the besieged city of Aleppo, following the evacuation of the last group of rebel fighters.

A UN official said earlier that more than 34,000 civilians and rebels had been removed since last Thursday.

The evacuees have been taken to rebel-held territory in the countryside west of Aleppo and in Idlib province.

This is the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against him began in 2011.

The evacuation of the opposition-held part of eastern Aleppo was part of a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.

In return, residents of the government-controlled towns of Foah and Kefraya in Idlib province, besieged by rebels, would also be removed.

Heavy snow, strong winds and the poor state of vehicles had slowed the evacuation, Red Cross officials said. Thousands of people were forced to wait for hours in sub-zero temperatures with little food or drink.

‘Crushing blow’

In a statement on Syrian TV, the army announced the “return of security to Aleppo”.

Media captionAleppo “tweeting girl” Bana Alabed tells of “heavy suffocating smoke”

“This victory represents a strategic change and a turning point in the war against terrorism on the one hand and a crushing blow to the terrorists’ project and their supporters on the other hand,” it said. The government usually refers to the rebels as “terrorists”.

The statement said the victory was a further incentive for the army to carry on fighting to “eradicate terrorism and restore security and stability to every span on the homeland”.

Ahmed Qorra Ali, part of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, told AFP that “the last convoy has left the rebel-controlled area”.


Aleppo: Before and after the battle

INTERACTIVE

2016

View from the citadel across the devastated city

2008

View from the Citadel of people eating at restaurants


Aleppo was once Syria’s largest city and its commercial and industrial hub before the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011.

For much of the past four years it was divided roughly in two, with the government controlling the western half and rebels the east.

Troops finally broke the deadlock this year with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes, reinstating a siege on the east in early September.

After breaking through the rebels’ defensive lines in mid-November, they quickly advanced and had seized all but 2.6 sq km (1 sq mile) by the time a ceasefire was brokered.

Map

Earlier, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that its warplanes had carried out 18,800 sorties since launching an air campaign against Mr Assad’s opponents in September 2015.

In total, they had “liquidated 725 training camps, 405 weapon factories and workshops, 1,500 pieces of terrorist equipment, and 35,000 fighters”, he said.

Human rights groups have accused the Russian and Syrian air forces of committing war crimes in Aleppo, alleging that they killed hundreds of civilians this September and October alone, deliberately targeted medical facilities, and used indiscriminate weapons such as cluster and incendiary munitions.

Aleppo battle: Hundreds leave Syria city as evacuations resume

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Buses drive through the Syrian government-controlled crossing of Ramoussah, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, on 18 December 2016Image copyrightAFP
Image captionSyrian state media said buses entered eastern Aleppo in the middle of Sunday but did not leave for many hours

Evacuations have resumed from east Aleppo, with buses and ambulances leaving rebel areas of the Syrian city, a UN official says.

At least 350 people reportedly left rebel enclaves in convoys late on Sunday, towards government territory.

Earlier, buses sent to take people out of government-controlled areas, besieged by rebels, were set alight, halting the latest evacuation deal.

Thousands are waiting to leave east Aleppo in desperate conditions.

The UN Security Council is said to have agreed a compromise to allow UN monitoring of the operation. Russia earlier rejected a French-drafted plan to send UN officials to east Aleppo as “a disaster”.

“We expect to vote unanimously for this text,” said US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

The Security Council meeting is due to start at 09:00 (14:00 GMT) in New York.

Initial efforts to evacuate the last rebel-held enclaves in the city collapsed on Friday, leaving civilians stranded at various points along the route out without access to food or shelter. Bombardment of east Aleppo has left it virtually without medical facilities.

Despite further setbacks on Sunday, buses and ambulances began moving out of the area after nightfall.

“Evacuations are on,” the UN official said in an email message to Reuters news agency, adding that the first people left east Aleppo at around 23:00 local time (21:00 GMT).

Five buses carrying evacuees arrived in rebel-held Khan al-Assal, AFP news agency quoted Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors coordinating evacuations to the town, as saying.

From Khan al-Assal, the evacuees are expected to travel to government held parts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Media captionNurses are forced to perform a Caesarean in place of surgeons in Aleppo

Pro-government forces previously demanded that people must be allowed to leave the mainly Shia villages of Foah and Kefraya in Idlib province, besieged by rebels, in order for the evacuation of east Aleppo to restart.

Some 1,200 people were due to be taken out of the former rebel enclave in return for a similar number moved out of the two government-held villages, Foah and Kefraya.

However, it is not thought any of the some 2,000 people believed to live in the two villages left on Sunday.

Media captionThe convoy of buses was travelling to the two government-held villages of Foah and Kefraya

Earlier on Sunday, armed men set fire to at least five buses that were about to transport the sick and injured from the villages.

Several reports said the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham rebel group, formerly al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, was responsible. But Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group fighting alongside Syria’s government, said the blaze started during fighting between the jihadist Fatah al-Sham and another Islamist rebel group that supported the evacuations.

The jihadist groups have not commented on the attack.

However, the Free Syrian Army, a more moderate rebel faction, condemned it as a “reckless act endangering the lives of nearly 50,000 people” in east Aleppo.

Among the people waiting to leave eastern Aleppo are sick and wounded children, said the children’s charity Unicef.

Some young children have been forced to leave without their parents, the charity said, and hundreds of vulnerable children remain trapped.

Who are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?

Map