Syrian army urges rebels to speed up Aleppo evacuation

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By Alasdair Sandford  with Reuters
Syrian army urges rebels to speed up Aleppo evacuation

The Syrian army has called for the evacuation of the last rebel enclave of Aleppo to be accelerated, broadcasting messages warning that it’s ready to enter the area.

The United Nations says Damascus has authorised it to send an additional 20 staff to the city to monitor the departure of thousands of people.

Many who have left have been transferred towards Turkey. A new tent camp is likely to be set up to house them along the border – although the most vulnerable including women and children will be allowed to enter the country.

A slow process

Estimates vary as to how many people have been moved out of Aleppo, and how many remain. The Turkish government which helped broker the ceasefire says over 37,000 have been brought out since Thursday. The Red Cross puts the figure lower, at only 25,000.

Russia has said the evacuation process will be complete in two days. But a rebel official in Turkey told Reuters that even after thousands had left on Monday, only about half of the civilians who wanted to leave had done so.

Conditions are described as grim, with evacuees enduring long waits in freezing weather for buses out of the city. Some babies reportedly died during the process.

Meanwhile as part of the exchange deal, more buses have been leaving the Shi’ite Muslim villages of Foua and Kefraya for government lines, according to Syrian military media.

The villagers have been taken to a shelter at Jibrin near Aleppo, where they have been met by Syrian government officials and UNICEF – who gave them food and medical aid.

Homes destroyed

Residents of the southeastern district of Marjeh have been gravitating back to their homes and businesses, or what is left of them. The area has taken by government forces from rebels earlier this month.

Images filmed following Syrian government guidelines showed almost entirely-destroyed streets full of rubble. Syrian flags have been hoisted in places.

“It’s been five years since I left the area, since the terrorist groups entered and they displaced us, and now I have come back to my shop to start fixing it up. They damaged our shops, they damaged our homes, they damaged everything,” said Fadel Rajab, one of the residents and a government supporter.

“God willing, and with the efforts of the shabab and the Syrian Arab army, and the leadership of President Doctor Bashar Hafez Assad, we will rebuild this country,” he added.

Rebels withdrew from the area after it came under heavy bombardment from pro-government forces.

Residents have been able to return but a lack of basic services such as water and electricity – not to mention buildings – means living there for now is impossible.