(BEIRUT) - Syrian TV said at least 39 people were killed Saturday in an explosion that hit near buses carrying people evacuated from a besieged area of government loyalists. A war monitor put the death toll at 24 in the area controlled by opposition fighters.
The explosion was caused by a car bomb, according to Syrian TV and the opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who put the death toll at 24 and said it would likely rise.
In footage aired on Syrian TV, bodies, including fighters, were seen lying alongside buses, some of which were charred and others gutted from the blast. Personal belongings could be seen dangling out of the windows. The state TV channel said the car was carrying food aid but a rebel spokesman said the car had been parked in the area and abandoned.
The explosion hit the Rashideen area, a rebel-controlled district outside Aleppo city where evacuation buses carrying nearly 5,000 people from the northern rebel-besieged villages of Foua and Kfraya were stuck, causing a huge plume of black smoke. Residents from the two villages had been evacuated Friday, along with more than 2,000 from Madaya, an opposition-held town outside of Damascus besieged by government forces.
A senior rebel leader said 20 fighters who guarded the buses were killed as well as dozens of passengers. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Yasser Abdellatif, a member of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group which negotiated the deal, said at least 30 rebels were killed in the explosion.
The explosion came as frustration was already mounting over the stalling evacuation process. Thousands of evacuees from the pro-government and opposition areas were stuck opposite sides of the edge of Aleppo city as rebels and government bickered over the terms for evacuating fighters.
Prior to the blast, Syrian Red Crescent teams had distributed meals to the restless evacuees, stuck in limbo after having left their homes over 30 hours earlier. Many were already voicing their dissatisfaction with the wait.
“The people are restless and the situation is disastrous,” said Ahmed Afandar, a resident evacuated from his the opposition area near Madaya. “All these thousands of people are stuck in less than half a kilometer (500 yards).” He said the area was walled off from all sides and there were no restrooms.
Afandar said people were not allowed to leave the buses for a while before they were let out. Food was distributed after several hours and by early afternoon the evacuees from rebel-held areas were “pressured” to sit back on their buses, Afandar said.
“We are not moving forward or backward,” he said. The evacuees from Madaya were expected to head to rebel-held Idlib, west of Aleppo.
Syrian state TV blamed the rebels for obstructing the deal, causing thousands of evacuees to be stuck in bus depots overnight.
Salloum Salloum, a lawmaker speaking on the pro-government al-Ikhbariya TV channel, said efforts were underway to resolve the problem, accusing the rebels of adding new conditions to the deal.
An opposition representative, Ali Diab, told the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV that fewer armed men than agreed to were evacuated from the pro-government areas, violating the terms of the agreement.
A resident of Zabadani - another rebel-held town to be evacuated - Amer Burhan says no evacuation had even taken place from there.
The population transfer deal has been criticized by opponents as forced displacement and was not overseen by the United Nations.
Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.