Convoys of green buses and ambulances ferried several thousand rebels and wounded civilians through the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo on Thursday as the highly anticipated evacuation of the last opposition enclave of the northern Syrian city finally began.
The operation got off to a shaky start after the first ambulances were shot at in the morning, wounding three people and underlining the fragility of a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia. But within hours, the International Committee of the Red Cross said ambulances were evacuating people.
Some 3,000 wounded and their families were taken out of the city by the evening, ICRC said. Russia’s defence ministry said efforts had also begun to move 5,000 rebels and their families out of eastern Aleppo, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
The evacuation deal effectively means the rebels are surrendering their last major urban stronghold and it gives President Bashar al-Assad’s regime its most significant victory of Syria’s five-year civil war.
“What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today, it started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria,” Mr Assad said in a video released on the presidency’s Twitter account.
For those who have been trapped in the eastern parts of Aleppo that were controlled by the rebels, and which endured the most intense bombardment of the conflict, the evacuation deal will bring some relief after the deaths of hundreds of people.
“All my friends are still here, none have left so far. Even on the street some of them are happy, maybe most of them are happy they are going outside — [but] some of them are angry that they are leaving their city,” said Wissam Zarqa, an opposition activist in Aleppo. “I saw some of them crying. This is almost my feeling.”
There was also a sense of caution, with concerns among some residents that their relatives will not be able to join them in the countryside outside the city, as well as fears that activists and others associated with the opposition could be arrested.
“We feel like we are being torn away from our land, the only people celebrating this is the regime . . . Aleppo has been raped,” said Hisham Skaff, spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group in Aleppo.
He added that thousands of people were waiting to leave the city.
“It is as if judgment day has come on to us — that is what the scene looks like where we are gathering (to be evacuated), he said.
It was the second attempt at an evacuation from rebel areas of Aleppo. The first Turkish-Russian-brokered deal, agreed on Tuesday after days of wrangling, fell apart when explosions rocked the city just as the wounded were being moved. Russia blamed the rebels while opposition forces accused Iranian-backed militias, which have fought alongside Syrian regime forces, of firing the first shot.
Moscow intervened militarily to support Mr Assad a year ago, with Russian war planes providing vital air support to the regime. Turkey has been an important backer of the rebels.
Diplomats said Iran and its allied militias objected to the original deal and demanded new conditions, including the evacuation of wounded from two Shia towns under rebel siege, Kefraya and al-Fuaa. The Aleppo rebels, for their part, were reluctant to negotiate with the radical jihadist groups that dominate these towns.
Before the deal was brokered, Mr Assad’s forces had been on the verge of declaring a complete victory in Aleppo.
Once a withdrawal is complete, the regime can claim control of all the country’s major cities, following nearly six years of fighting in which more than 450,000 have been killed. This effectively relegates the opposition to a rural insurgency, a fact that could weaken international support for the rebels from the US, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.
Mr Assad’s forces have won several cities back through similar withdrawal deals, but this would be the largest and most complicated yet. It is not clear how many civilians and fighters are left.
Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, had been divided between rebels on the east and Assad forces on the south, ever since the opposition stormed the city in 2012.
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Istanbul
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