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World

Cease-Fire Deal On Hold As Civilians Remain Trapped In Aleppo

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We begin with the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. People there have been trapped by the fighting between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime, but NPR has heard from an opposition activist who is in Aleppo who says a cease-fire has taken hold. It's intended to pave the way for an evacuation of people who are still in the last rebel-held enclave of the city. A similar deal fell through earlier. NPR's Alison Meuse reports.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: In Aleppo's last rebel-held districts, civilians have gone from accepting a bitter departure to once again fearing for their lives amid an impending regime takeover. I reach Hisham Eskeef, an opposition activist who with his wife has been sticking it out in the siege. He sent me a voice message a dawn just ahead of a planned evacuation.

HISHAM ESKEEF: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He says, "the countdown for uprooting the olive trees has begun." By the trees, he means people like him whose roots in the city go back generations.

ESKEEF: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He continues his poetry, praising the refugees full of grace and lamenting the harshness of those displacing them. He says, "all of Aleppo is in my heart. Even if I leave, the homeland won't leave me." I can hear the sound of pouring rain in the background.

(CROSSTALK)

MEUSE: Soon Eskeef and others were trekking under the rain to the designated meeting point. In a video posted by activists, couples, children, injured on crutches can be seen carrying their belongings, making their way past collapsed buildings.

One hour went by, then another. And soon reports began to circulate that an Iranian-backed militia had blocked the buses. They reportedly wanted the wounded from their side to be evacuated from two northern villages besieged by rebels.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MEUSE: In a video posted by Iranian-backed forces loyal to Assad, fighting can be heard in Aleppo's streets. Eskeef messages again.

ESKEEF: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: "The agreement fell through," he says. "The shelling started again at 9. Then there were cluster bombs and four airstrikes. There are bodies scattered in the streets," he says, "and we can't do anything to help them."

I reach Eyad Youssef, who has relatives in those besieged pro-regime villages. He says that while the army advanced in Aleppo, the armed opposition was shelling his village. His family moved into a tent despite the cold because houses were being targeted. He's heard there's a chance of an evacuation linked to Aleppo, but nothing is certain.

Back in Aleppo, it's nightfall, and Eskeef doesn't have good news.

ESKEEF: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He says it's raining missiles now, and hundreds of people already displaced by earlier rounds of fighting are sleeping out in the cold tonight. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.