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Aleppo evacuation is complete, claims Russia

Russia said the evacuation of thousands of people trapped for months in the last rebel foothold of Aleppo was finished on Friday, hours after a series of blasts halted the operation.

“The Syrian army operation to liberate the militant-controlled eastern districts of Aleppo is complete,” the Russian defence ministry said. “Syrian government forces are liquidating isolated pockets of resistance by radicals.”

An agreement for rebels to withdraw from Aleppo was brokered by Russia, which has provided crucial military support to President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs the opposition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the next phase would “be reaching an agreement on a full ceasefire” for all of Syria.

“We are leading very active negotiations with representatives of the armed opposition in Syria, also through the mediation of Turkey,” Mr Putin said on a visit to Japan.

Activists in Aleppo and an official at the International Committee of the Red Cross who was working on the evacuation said there were likely to be thousands of people still inside the remaining rebel areas of eastern Aleppo who were not evacuated.

“There were still thousands of people, families with women and children, when I left. I’m shaking because I am so worried about what is going to happen now,” said Abdu Khudr, an activist who was on one of the last convoys to make it out of the city. “I wish we had died instead of having to see the things that have happened to Aleppo.”

Evacuees arrive by bus to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by rebels © Reuters

A senior rebel official said negotiations for a resumption of the evacuation were not over, and blamed Iran, another key backer of Mr Assad, and the regime for foiling the deal.

“[They] obstructed the evacuation many times over the last 48 hours,” he said. “The recent statements that you’re hearing from the Russians about the evacuation being over are false.”

He expressed fears that the regime and allied militias were “planning a massacre” in east Aleppo.

Syrians are evacuated from a rebel-held area of Aleppo on Friday © AFP

Thousands of opposition fighters and wounded civilians had been leaving Aleppo in convoys of buses and ambulances since the evacuations started on Thursday. The city was the rebels’ last major urban stronghold and a critical battleground of Syria’s five-year war.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts that led to the initial suspension of the evacuation on Friday. A state-owned news channel, Ikhbariya, said it had information that fighters leaving eastern Aleppo tried to take hostages and heavy weapons with them.

Activists blamed the collapse of the evacuation deal on pro-government militias, who are controlling checkpoints in the city and demanding that the wounded also be taken out of the Shia towns of Kefraya and al-Fuaa in neighbouring Idlib province, which are besieged by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

A rebel leader said the opposition had finally agreed to evacuate wounded people from the two towns.

Iran imposed the towns’ evacuation as an extra condition to the Aleppo deal after it was brokered.

Rebels had struggled to arrange the Kefraya and al-Fuaa evacuations because Fatah al-Sham, which has ties to al-Qaeda, rejected the deal.

The first Russian-Turkish brokered evacuation deal broke down over similar issues on Wednesday.

The evacuation of Aleppo has been a heart-wrenching experience for many.

“I’m going to leave a piece of my heart here and go away. I’m going to be displaced,” said Mohammed Edel, an activist inside the city who sent an audio message to journalists. “But I promise, I promise you all: One day I’ll get back home.”

A member of forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stands near damaged buildings in Aleppo © Reuters

Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the ICRC, said some people were crying as they decided what to take with them and what to leave in Aleppo’s devastated eastern districts.

“You can see it in their faces, their eyes are filled with sadness and there is huge destruction, which is something I will never forget,” he said. “We were going through this neighbourhood and you can’t believe you’re in reality — it felt like we were in some creepy, terrible video game. You feel the desperation as everyone is waiting, anxiously.”

Aleppo, Syria’s second city, has been divided for four years between rebels on the east and Assad forces on the west.

Backed by Russian warplanes and foreign Shia fighters linked to Iran, Syria’s army besieged Aleppo for months before ground forces swept in during the past few weeks. Residents trapped between the rebels and regime faced bombing day and night, hunger and a near-total collapse in infrastructure and medical services.

Rebels will soon be relegated to rural bastions that could marginalise their influence, and could push them into an insurgency that becomes even more radicalised. Many are heading to the north-western province of Idlib, where the jihadi group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham holds sway.

Via FT