Respite from war

Civil­ians, fight­ers leav­ing rebel-held parts of Aleppo

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By AGEN­CIES in Aleppo, Syria

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.

Big­gest vic­tory

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.

BARAA AL-HALABI / AFP

Syr­ian evac­uees from Aleppo ar­rive in op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Khan al-Aas­sal, west of the city, on Thurs­day.

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