Syrian state media has said that dozens of families, as well as some opposition fighters, have started using newly opened “humanitarian corridors” to leave rebel-held parts of Aleppo, but conflicting reports from inside the besieged city have suggested that the passages have not yet been in operation.
State media broadcast footage on Saturday purporting to show civilians, mostly women and children, boarding buses to leave eastern Aleppo, in the first reported movement of people since Russia announced a plan to open up safe passages on Thursday.
“A number” of women over the age of 40 had left, in addition to the families, and were taken to shelters, according to the state news agency SANA.
The reports, however, were later contradicted by sources in Aleppo who claimed that the corridors had not been opened, and civilians were still coming under fire.
“Everybody that we’ve spoken with, when it comes to opposition activists and residents in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, have told us that these humanitarian corridors have not been opened,” Mohamed Jamjoom, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish side of the Syria-Turkey border, said.
“Not only they have not been opened, but they say in several of the areas … in fact there is fighting still going on, and there are regime snipers as well that are shooting almost constantly.”
An estimated 320,000 people are under government siege in Aleppo, facing acute food and medicine shortages.
‘Armed men surrendering’
SANA also said on Saturday that “armed men from eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo” turned themselves over to army soldiers in Salaheddin district, without specifying a number, or giving further details.
Syrian state TV showed a video of a handful of supposed rebel fighters entering government territory carrying their weapons aloft, some with scarves wrapped around their faces.
“Clearly we are in the midst of a thing that we see all the time in Syria; a propaganda war that is ongoing alongside the actual war,” said Jamjoom.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Saturday that “a number” of civilians had crossed into government territory.
Freelance journalist Alaa Ebrahim said he had personally witnessed hundreds of people using the corridors leaving rebel-controlled areas.
“Understandably, many people are afraid to leave and cross into other places after living for years under the control of the rebels,” he said. “Some fear prosecution, or have relatives who have been involved in some acts of violence against the government.”
‘Corridors of death’
Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by the war that began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
It has been roughly divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east since mid-2012.
Eastern neighborhoods have been under total siege for several weeks, with Russia-backed government forces encircling the city and seizing the only remaining supply route.
On Thursday, Russia and the Syrian government announced on a joint plan to open up three corridors to give Aleppo civilians, as well as rebels willing to surrender, a way out of the city’s besieged areas.
But the announcement was met with suspicion by international powers, including the US, as well as residents in Aleppo.
“I want to leave, but not to government-held areas,” said Abu Mohamed, a 50-year-old father of four living in Al-Shaar district.
“I’m very afraid that they will take my 17-year-old son and force him to sign up for military service where they’ll send him to the frontlines,” he told the AFP news agency.
Speaking to reporters, other Aleppo residents called the proposed routes “corridors of death”.
“The regime, Iran and Russia should have stopped the aerial raids if they have the smallest concern for humanity,” one resident said.
Another said: “The ones who want to open humanitarian corridors must first have to care about humanity. Those who commit massacres, hit hospitals, kill civilians, do not care about humanity.”
The UN voiced provisional support for the humanitarian corridors, but its Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura urged that the body be allowed to take charge of the routes.
On Saturday, regime war planes continued to hit opposition positions, with the Observatory reporting air strikes on two rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Aleppo.
The group also reported clashes in the two neighborhoods.
Syria’s opposition has dismissed the humanitarian corridors initiative as a ploy and part of the government’s bid to recapture all of Aleppo city.
“Be clear – these ‘corridors’ are not for getting aid in, but driving people out,” Basma Kodmani, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told the AFP news agency on Friday.
“The brutal message to our people is: ‘leave or starve.'”
More than 280,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war which erupted five years ago