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Evacuations Resume In Besieged Rebel Enclave In Syrian City Of Aleppo

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk next about the war in Syria. The evacuation of eastern Aleppo continued overnight after a chaotic weekend. UNICEF, the United Nations agency, says that 47 children were evacuated from an orphanage in the rebel-held section of the city. NPR's Alison Meuse reports from Beirut.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: After days of rocky attempts, evacuations from eastern Aleppo have resumed. Activist footage published after midnight Sunday purports to show a group arriving to the rebel-held countryside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

MEUSE: The mood is joyful as evacuees call up friends and relatives. A man in a wool hat presses his phone to his ear shouting, we made it. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says hundreds of people were allowed to leave eastern Aleppo Sunday night, including a group of orphans. The evacuation was in jeopardy just days before when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces blocked the buses.

The media office for Assad's Iranian-backed ally, Hezbollah, told NPR the group was pushing to secure a similar evacuation from two Shiite villages which are besieged by Sunni rebels. A video published on Friday purports to show the scene in Aleppo as evacuees realize their departure is being blocked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEUSE: Crowds rush past as the sound of gunfire rings out. The cameraman starts to weep. One man fleeing from the crossing point tells him, they're arresting people. They killed four. NPR could not verify the claim. Another man cloaked in a blanket slows down to walk back with the cameraman. I don't know what happened, he tells him. Something's very wrong.

The rebels had already lost the battle for Aleppo. But their siege of two Shiite villages still gives them leverage. Soon, negotiations were back on and a new deal was struck. On Sunday, buses set off through rebel-held territory to reach those villages. But this time, it was allies of the rebel side that blocked an evacuation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

MEUSE: A video from rebel-held territory it shows the fate of the convoy. The buses are ablaze. A bearded man gives a frenzied speech to a group of militants, cursing the Shiite villagers and vowing none of them will pass.

On social media, activists who'd been lobbying for the evacuation of Aleppo blamed al-Qaida for sabotaging the deal and killing a bus driver. Back in Aleppo, residents besieged by regime forces called on the rebels to secure the evacuation route for the Shiite villages and allow it to proceed.

Reports of summary executions have added urgency to calls for independent observers to monitor the evacuations. I reach Sherine Tadros from Amnesty International, one of the human-rights organizations which have been pushing for the U.N. to send monitors.

SHERINE TADROS: The attacks are happening from various parties on the ground. And it's an extremely confused picture. And all of that goes to really bolster the idea of the need for these sorts of monitors.

MEUSE: With risky evacuations stopping and starting and worsening conditions for those under siege, Tadros says there's no time to delay or for Syrian authorities to have the last word.

TADROS: What we need are for these monitors to be deployed right now.

MEUSE: Tadros says the goal isn't just to observe violations taking place. It's to try to stop atrocities and crimes from happening in the first place. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.