Hundreds of civilians and rebels left Aleppo yesterday under an evacuation deal that will allow Syria’s regime to take full control of the city after years of fighting.
The rebel withdrawal began a month to the day after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a new offensive to recapture Aleppo and will hand the regime its biggest victory in more than five years of civil war.
In a video message to Syrians, Assad said the “liberation” of Aleppo was “history in the making”.
A revived agreement on a ceasefire and the evacuations was announced yesterday, after an initial plan for civilians and fighters to leave rebel-held parts of the city collapsed the previous day amid renewed clashes.
The evacuation began with a convoy of ambulances and buses crossing into a government-held district in southern Aleppo around 2.30pm (1230 GMT).
A Syrian military source said 951 evacuees, including 108 wounded, were in the convoy.
Most were civilians but about 200 rebel fighters were among them, the source said.
The convoy arrived just over an hour later in opposition territory about 5kms west of the city, a doctor at the scene said. “The wounded will be transferred to...
nearby hospitals for treatment,” said Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a unit of doctors and other volunteers co-ordinating the evacuation of wounded people.
The evacuees spent hours gathering earlier at a staging area in Aleppo’s southern Al-Amiriyah district.
An AFP correspondent there saw people piling onto the green buses, filling seats and even sitting on the floor, with some worried that there would not be another chance to evacuate.
Many were in tears and some hesitated to board, afraid they would end up in the hands of regime forces.
On the dusty window of one of the buses someone had written “One day we will return”. Each bus carried a member of the Syrian Red Crescent dressed in the organisation’s red uniform, riding at the front next to the driver.
Ingy Sedky, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s spokeswoman in Syria, said the first convoy included 13 ambulances and 20 buses carrying civilians.
Once the first convoy arrived safely “it will return and collect more people for a second journey and continue like that. We will go on for as long as conditions allow,” she said.
Syrian state television reported that at least 4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated under the plan. It said preparations were underway for a second convoy to leave rebel-held territory.
A first evacuation attempt on Wednesday morning fell apart, with artillery exchanges and resumed air strikes rocking the city until the early hours of yesterday.
But the agreement, brokered by Syrian regime ally Moscow and opposition supporter Ankara, was revived following fresh talks.
The defence ministry in Moscow said that Syrian authorities had guaranteed the safety of the rebels leaving the city.
The head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, told reporters in Geneva that most of those evacuated from Aleppo would head to opposition stronghold Idlib, in Syria’s northwest.
“Russians and others assure us that there will be a pause in the fighting...when we assist the evacuation,” Egeland said.
France yesterday requested urgent closed-door consultations at the UN Security Council on the evacuation of civilians and plans for deliveries of aid to Aleppo, diplomats said.
The evacuation was going ahead despite reports earlier yesterday of pro-regime forces firing on an ambulance transporting the injured to Al-Amiriyah, wounding three people including a member of the White Helmets civil defence organisation.
On Wednesday, cold and hungry civilians had gathered for the initial planned evacuation but were instead sent running through the streets searching for cover as fighting resumed.
Russia accused the rebels of having violated the ceasefire while Turkey accused Assad’s regime and its supporters of blocking the evacuation.
Yesterday, nearly 30 vehicles were headed to Fuaa and Kafraya to evacuate sick and wounded residents, the governor of neighbouring Hama province, Mohamed al-Hazouri, told state news agency SANA.
A Syrian source on the ground said “1,200 injured and sick people and their families will be evacuated.”
The United Nations this week condemned alleged atrocities being carried out by pro-government fighters, including reported summary executions of men, women and children.
More than 310,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began, and over half the population has been displaced, with millions becoming refugees.
The conflict, which began with anti-government protests that were brutally put down, saw a turning point last year when Russia launched an air war in support of Assad.
With Aleppo out of rebel hands, the largest remaining rebel bastion is Idlib province, which is controlled by an alliance dominated by former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
Rebels also hold territory in southern Daraa province and the Ghouta region around Damascus, although the army has been advancing there.
Diplomatic efforts — including several rounds of peace talks in Geneva — failed to make headway in resolving the conflict.
UK ‘doesn’t see a future’ for Assad in Syria: Fallon
Bashar al-Assad has no future as president of Syria even if he overpowers rebel fighters in the stricken city of Aleppo, British Defence Minister Michael Fallon said yesterday.
“We don’t see a future for President Assad in Syria, even if he defeats the opposition in Aleppo,” Fallon told a London press conference. “There is no victory in bombing hospitals, in restricting humanitarian aid and ending up in a country that you only control 40% of.” He added: “We continue to work for a political settlement in Syria that is genuinely pluralist.”
Fallon was speaking alongside US defence chief Ashton Carter after a meeting in London of key members of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Carter backed his British counterpart, saying: “Political transition is the only way that the suffering of the Syrian people can finally be brought to an end.” He accused Russia of supporting “incredible brutality” by backing Assad’s assault on rebels in Aleppo, which he said was in “stark contrast” to the coalition’s activities in Iraq and Syria.
US president-elect Donald Trump has so-far struck a softer tone with Russia, but Carter said it would be “logical” for him to stick to the current administration’s approach towards IS.
“I can’t speak for the next administration. However, I do have confidence in the future of the coalition campaign. It’s logical, it makes sense,” he said.
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