First evacuations from rebel-held Aleppo

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ALEPPO, Syria: A convoy of ambulances and buses left rebel territory in Aleppo on Thursday in the first evacuations under a deal for opposition fighters to leave the city after years of fighting.

The rebel withdrawal will pave the way for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to reclaim complete control of Syria‘s second city, handing the regime its biggest victory in more than five years of civil war.

A revived agreement on a ceasefire and the evacuations was announced on Thursday, after an initial plan for civilians and fighters to leave rebel-held parts of east Aleppo collapsed the previous day amid renewed clashes.

Evacuees spent several hours gathering at a staging area with assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross then, around 2:30 pm (1230 GMT), an AFP correspondent in the city saw the first vehicles leave rebel territory.

The slow-moving convoy of around two dozen vehicles snaked out of Al-Amiriyah district in southern Aleppo and crossed into government-held Ramussa.

An AFP correspondent at the staging area said people were piling onto the buses, filling seats and even sitting on the floor, with some worried that there would not be another chance to evacuate.

Many were in tears and some hesitated to board the buses, afraid they would end up in the hands of regime forces.

The convoy was led by vehicles from the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, followed by ambulances and then green government buses.

Ingy Sedky, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Syria, said the first convoy included 13 ambulances and 20 buses carrying civilians.

“They have crossed the front line and are on their way to rural parts of western Aleppo” province, including the opposition-controlled town of Khan al-Aassal, she told AFP.

“Once the convoy arrives safely it will return and collect more people for a second journey and continue like that. We will go today for as long as conditions allow.”

Syrian state television reported that at least 4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated under the plan.

A first evacuation expected to take place on Wednesday morning fell apart, with artillery exchanges and resumed air strikes rocking the city until the early hours of Thursday.

But the agreement, brokered by Syrian regime ally Moscow and opposition supporter Ankara, was revived following fresh talks.

The defence ministry in Moscow said that Syrian authorities had guaranteed the safety of the rebels leaving the city.

The head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, told reporters in Geneva that “most” of those evacuated from Aleppo would be headed to opposition stronghold Idlib, in Syria’s northwest.

Egeland said the UN had two humanitarian hubs set up in the province.

“Russians and others assure us that there will be a pause in the fighting… when we assist the evacuation,” Egeland said.

The evacuation was going ahead despite reports earlier Thursday of pro-regime forces firing on an ambulance transporting the injured to Al-Amiriyah, wounding three people including a member of the White Helmets civil defence organisation.

On Wednesday, cold and hungry civilians had gathered for the initial planned evacuation but were instead sent running through the streets searching for cover as the fighting resumed.

Russia accused the rebels of having violated the ceasefire while Turkey accused Assad’s regime and its supporters of blocking the evacuation.

Iran, another key Assad backer, was reported to have imposed new conditions on the agreement, including the evacuation of some civilians from two Shiite-majority villages in northwestern Syria under rebel siege.

On Thursday, nearly 30 vehicles were headed to the two villages, Fuaa and Kafraya, to evacuate sick and wounded residents, the governor of neighbouring Hama province, Mohamed al-Hazouri, told state news agency SANA.

A Syrian source on the ground told AFP that “1,200 injured and sick people and their families will be evacuated.”

The new deal Thursday was announced a month to the day after pro-government forces launched a major new offensive to retake all of Aleppo, large parts of which had been in rebel hands since 2012.

Backed by foreign militia forces including fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, the advance made rapid gains, seizing more than 90 percent of rebel territory within a few weeks.

More than 465 civilians, including 62 children, have died in east Aleppo during the assault, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Another 149 civilians, among them 45 children, have been killed by rebel rocket fire on government-held zones in the same period, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

The United Nations and Western countries this week condemned alleged atrocities being carried out by pro-government fighters during the advance, including reported summary executions of men, women and children.

A UN panel said on Wednesday that it had also received reports that rebel fighters were blocking civilians from leaving and using them as human shields.

More than 310,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began, and over half the population has been displaced, with millions becoming refugees.

The United States and other Western nations, Turkey, and Gulf Arab states all backed opposition forces during the war but their support was limited.

 The conflict, which began with anti-government protests that were brutally put down, saw a turning point last year when Russia launched an air war in support of Assad.
With Aleppo out of rebel hands, the largest remaining rebel bastion is Idlib province, which is controlled by an alliance dominated by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.

Rebels also hold territory in southern Daraa province and the Ghouta region around Damascus, although the army has been advancing there.

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