Respite from war
Civilians, fighters leaving rebel-held parts of Aleppo
Russia announced on Friday it was negotiating with the Syrian opposition and seeking a nationwide ceasefire, as the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo entered a second day.
Thousands of traumatized civilians boarded buses and ambulances in freezing temperatures as the operation continued through the night.
“The next step (after Aleppo) will be to reach agreement on a complete ceasefire across all of Syria,” President Vladimir Putin said on the sidelines of a visit to Japan.
“We are actively negotiating with members of the armed opposition, with the mediation of Turkey.”
Russia and Turkey jointly brokered the deal that has seen thousands of people cram into buses, ambulances and pickup trucks to flee the last pocket of rebel-held Aleppo since Thursday.
The evacuation deal, which will allow Syria’s government to claim full control of the city, was expected to continue throughout Friday.
Initially, evacuees were leaving via a single convoy of ambulances and green government buses that traveled between Aleppo and rebelheld territory in the west of the province.
But overnight, the vehicles began returning individually to collect more evacuees as soon as they dropped off their passengers, said Ingy Sedky of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“That means it is difficult for us to know exactly how many people have left so far, but there will be an assessment by the end of the operation,” she said.
Syrian state media estimated some 8,000 people had left, including around 3,000 rebel fighters.
The departures began a month to the day after government forces launched a major offensive to retake all of Aleppo, and will hand the government its biggest victory in more than five years of civil war.
In a video message to Syrians on Thursday, President Bashar al-Assad said the “liberation” of Aleppo was “history in the making”.
The UN estimated around 250,000 people were living in rebel-held east Aleppo when the government assault began in mid-November, although officials have since acknowl- edged that figure might have been incorrect.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that perhaps 50,000 people remained in the last rebel-held districts, 40,000 of them civilians.
The evacuation plan was due to begin on Wednesday but was put on hold after objections from the government delayed the operation and clashes erupted.
On Thursday, thousands gathered to leave, desperate for relief after months of bombardment and siege but tearful at the prospect of potentially permanent exile.
More than 310,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, and more than half the population has been displaced, with millions becoming refugees.
Syrian evacuees from Aleppo arrive in opposition-controlled Khan al-Aassal, west of the city, on Thursday.