An operation to evacuate thousands of civilians and fighters from the last rebel enclave in Aleppo has been well underway, continuing throughout the day on Thursday.
Pictures broadcast on Syrian state TV showed a convoy of 10 ambulances and at least 17 green buses, said to be carrying at least 1,000 people out of the battered city. The reports said those leaving were opposition fighters.
The developments follow a ceasefire deal, and mark the end of the long siege of Aleppo, amounting to a major victory for President Assad’s forces.
Earlier, the Red Cross said the operation to get around 200 wounded people had started. Russia said 5,000 rebels and family members were being brought out.
Others waited in the streets of eastern Aleppo for their turn.
Syrian government assurances
The Syrian authorities said they were working to guarantee the safety of those being evacuated.
“We have only one goal — that’s to ensure the safety of civilians, not the armed militants. Our final goal is to ensure that they can withdraw safely and we will try our best to protect them,” said Ali Haider, Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs, speaking to reporters in Damascus.
Earlier reports said pro-government forces had fired on vehicles taking people out, resulting in several injuries and at least one death.
A senior Russian military official, Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir, said the Syrian army had almost finished its operations in Aleppo.
“After liberating Aleppo we can say not only the Syrian situation, but also the regional and international situation is different. Here time became history. Aleppo converted time into history,” said a triumphant President Assad in a video message.
Russia’s defence ministry said those being evacuated – the injured, civilians and fighters – were being taken to rebel-held areas of neighbouring Idlib province.
The ministry said Moscow would deploy drones to monitor rebels and their families being transported along a humanitarian corridor.
Idlib however is already a target for Syrian and Russian airstrikes and there have been fears for the future safety of those being taken there – especially young men.
The International Rescue Committee said those being evacuated from Aleppo had not escaped the war. “We are very concerned that the sieges and barrel bombs will follow the thousands who arrive in Idlib,” it said.
In exchange for the evacuation operation out of Aleppo, people were being moved out of two Shi’ite villages near Idlib, Foua and Kefraya, that had been besieged by rebels – according to a military media unit run by Hezbollah, a group allied to Assad.
Claims of atrocities
The recent advance of government forces in Aleppo was rapid.
The past few days had seen the collapse of one ceasefire deal, with people hiding as shelling continued. Cries for help were posted on social media as pro-government forces closed in, and the UN raised the alarm over reports of new atrocities being committed.
As Syrian forces regained control, reports also emerged of alleged atrocities and mistreatment of civilians carried out by rebels.
Part of the rebel collapse in recent months has been attributed to rebel in-fighting, as jihadist groups in particular have come to the fore.
A UN investigator and former UN war crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, told German newspaper Die Zeit that Russian and Syrian bombing of homes, hospitals and schools amounted to war crimes, as did the starving of parts of Aleppo by pro-government militias.