Aleppo re­taken

Rebels to evac­u­ate fi­nal few blocks in sur­ren­der deal as fight­ing ends; gov­ern­ment con­trol re­stored to what was once coun­try’s largest city

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Zeina Karam and Edith M. Led­erer

Syr­ian rebels reached a cease-fire deal to evac­u­ate from east­ern Aleppo in an ef­fec­tive sur­ren­der Tues­day, as Rus­sia de­clared all mil­i­tary ac­tion had stopped and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment had as­sumed con­trol of the for­mer rebel en­clave.

The dra­matic de­vel­op­ments, which ap­peared to re­store the re­main­der of what was once Syria’s largest city to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces af­ter months of heavy fight­ing and a crip­pling siege, fol­lowed re­ports of mass killings by gov­ern­ment forces clos­ing in on the fi­nal few blocks still held by the rebels.

Da­m­as­cus con­firmed the evac­u­a­tion deal, and the U.N. en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, called for im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the for­mer rebel en­clave to con­firm the end of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and to over­see the safe de­par­ture of tens of thou­sands of civil­ians and op­po­si­tion fight­ers. He was at the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, where an emer­gency meet­ing for Aleppo was un­der­way.

Rus­sia’s U.N. am­bas­sador, Vi­taly Churkin, took to the floor near the end of the ses­sion at the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to an­nounce fight­ing had ended.

“Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est in­for­ma­tion that we re­ceived ... mil­i­tary ac­tions in east­ern Aleppo are over,” Churkin said. “The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has re-es­tab­lished con­trol over east­ern Aleppo.”

Min­utes ear­lier, he had an­nounced that “all mil­i­tants” and mem­bers of their fam­i­lies, as well as those wounded in the fight­ing, were be­ing evac­u­ated through “agreed cor­ri­dors in direc­tions that they have cho­sen vol­un­tar­ily,” in­clud­ing the rebel strong­hold of Idlib prov­ince.

As word spread of the deal, cel­e­bra­tions broke out in the gov­ern­ment-con­trolled western sec­tor of Aleppo, with con­voys of cars driv­ing around honk­ing their horns and wav­ing Syr­ian flags from the win­dows.

Re­tak­ing Aleppo, which has been split be­tween rebel and gov­ern­ment con­trol since 2012, would be As­sad’s big­gest vic­tory yet in the civil war. Aleppo, the coun­try’s for­mer com­mer­cial pow­er­house, has long been re­garded as a ma­jor gate­way be­tween Tur­key and Syria and the big­gest prize in the con­flict.

The agree­ment Tues­day came af­ter world lead­ers and aid agen­cies is­sued dra­matic ap­peals on be­half of trapped res­i­dents, and the U.N. hu­man rights of­fice said that pro-gov­ern­ment forces re­port­edly killed 82 civil­ians as they closed in on the last re­main­ing rebel areas.

That and other re­ports of mass killings, which could not be in­de­pen­dently con­firmed, re­in­forced fears of atroc­i­ties in the fi­nal hours of the bat­tle for the city.

U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon told the emer­gency meet­ing he had re­ceived “cred­i­ble re­ports” of civil­ians killed by in­tense bomb­ing and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions by pro-gov­ern­ment forces.

“To the As­sad regime, Rus­sia and Iran — three mem­ber states be­hind the con­quest of and car­nage in Aleppo — you bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for these atroc­i­ties,” said U.S. Am­bas­sador Sa­man­tha Power.

Sev­eral res­i­dents and op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said gov­ern­ment forces car­ried out sum­mary killings of rebels in neigh­bor­hoods cap­tured Mon­day, but the Syr­ian mil­i­tary de­nied the claim, say­ing such al­le­ga­tions were “a des­per­ate at­tempt” to gain in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy.

None of the res­i­dents wit­nessed the al­leged killings, and the re­ports came amid deep­en­ing chaos in the re­main­ing re­bel­held areas. Mo­hammed Abu Ra­jab, the ad­min­is­tra­tor of the last re­main­ing clinic in rebel-held parts of the city, said the dead and wounded were be­ing left in the streets.

Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, de­nied any mass ex­e­cu­tions or re­venge at­tacks, but he added it was Syria’s “con­sti­tu­tional right” to go af­ter “ter­ror­ists,” a ref­er­ence to all op­po­si­tion fight­ers.

“Aleppo has been liberated from ter­ror­ists and those who toyed with ter­ror­ism,” he said. “Aleppo has re­turned to the na­tion.”

AFP/Getty Images

Syr­ian res­i­dents, flee­ing vi­o­lence in the Bus­tan al-Qasr neigh­bor­hood, ar­rive in Aleppo’s Far­dos neigh­bor­hood Tues­day af­ter regime troops re­took the area from rebel fight­ers.

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