BEIRUT, Dec 22 (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Thursday it had retaken Aleppo entirely and brought “security and safety” back to the city, as the last group of rebel fighters were evacuated.
The last group of rebels and their families holed up in a small enclave in Aleppo were evacuated on Thursday, under a deal that gives the army and its allies full control of the city after years of fighting, state television said.
Check back for updates on this developing story.
The evacuation of rebels from their last enclave in Aleppo will soon be complete when the last four buses leave the city, a media unit run by the Syrian government’s ally Hezbollah said on Thursday.
State media showed footage of a convoy waiting to cross from the Ramousah highway junction in south Aleppo to rebel-held al-Rashideen in the countryside just southwest of the city.
The end to the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo would mark Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of full control over the city after four years of fighting there and hand him his biggest victory of the war so far.
At least 34,000 people, both civilians and fighters, have been evacuated from east Aleppo in a week-long operation, the latest U.N. figures show. But the United Nations estimates that thousands more remain in eastern Aleppo enclaves.
“The process for evacuation was traumatic, with crowding, and vulnerable people waiting for hours and exposed to sub-zero temperatures,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.
A senior United Nations official warned on Thursday that thousands of people evacuated from rebel-held areas of Aleppo after a crushing government offensive could suffer the same fate in their new place of refuge outside the city.
“Many of them have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo,” U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said in Geneva.
He said a cessation of hostilities across Syria was vital if another battle like the bloody struggle for Aleppo was to be avoided.
Thousands of refugees from Aleppo were taken to Idlib, arousing fears that the rebel-held city in northwestern Syria could be next. Assad has declared that the war is far from over and that his armed forces would march on other rebel-held areas.
Evacuees from Aleppo had expressed concerns about being taken to Idlib and a senior European diplomat said earlier this month that this would suit Russia, Assad’s main military backer, as it would put “all their rotten eggs in one basket”.
Assad said that regaining full control of Aleppo was a victory shared by his Russian and Iranian allies.
In comments after meeting a senior Iranian delegation, Assad said his battlefield successes were a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syria and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war”.
Russia’s air force conducted hundreds of raids that pulverised rebel-held parts of Aleppo while Iranian-backed militias, led by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, poured thousands of fighters to fight rebels into the city.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian air strikes in Syria had killed 35,000 rebel fighters and halted a chain of revolutions in the Middle East.
Speaking at a gathering of senior military officials that appeared designed to showcase Russia’s military achievements, Shoigu said Moscow’s intervention had prevented the collapse of the Syrian state.
Fighters and civilians were evacuated overnight and on Thursday from east Aleppo to opposition-held areas under an agreement between the warring sides, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
“Most are heading towards camps, or to their relatives, or shelter locations,” said Ahmad al-Dbis, a medical aid worker heading a team evacuating patients from Aleppo. “The humanitarian situation in northern Syria is very difficult, because the area is already densely populated since it has people displaced from all over Syria.”
Those leaving Aleppo are not only going to Idlib, a city and province southwest of Aleppo, but to villages in the countryside in Aleppo province that lies west and north of the city and has also been heavily bombed.
Ahmed Kara Ali, spokesman for Ahrar al Sham, a rebel group that is involved in departure negotiations, told Reuters “large numbers” were left but it was difficult to estimate how many remained, beyond it being in the thousands.
Hundreds of other people were also still being evacuated from two villages besieged by rebels near Idlib and taken to government lines in Aleppo, part of the deal that has allowed insurgents to withdraw from the city carrying light weapons.
Another rebel official said a heavy snow storm that hit northern Syria and the sheer numbers of civilians still remaining had delayed the mass evacuation.
“The numbers of civilians, their cars alongside and of course the weather all are making the evacuation slow,” Munir al-Sayal, head of the political wing of Ahrar al Sham, said, adding he expected the operation to be completed on Thursday.
The tiny pocket they are fleeing is all that remains of a rebel sector that covered nearly half the city before being besieged in the summer, the cue for intense air strikes that reduced swathes of it to rubble. As the months of bombardment wore on, rescue and health services collapsed.
The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been devastated during the war which has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Peter Hobson in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michelle Nichols in New York and Ellen Francis in Beirut, writing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood)