An untold number of Syrians trapped in an ever tightening patch of rebel territory in Aleppo are desperately seeking a way to safety as the opposition’s final foothold in a major city looked on the verge of collapse.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for all sides to urgently agree a deal to evacuate people as it warned that time was running out for trapped civilians, whose numbers it could not determine. The UN said on Tuesday it had received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians, including women and children, in recent days as they fought to push the rebels from their remaining territory in the city.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN human rights office, said he feared retribution against thousands of civilians believed to be holed up in a “hellish corner” of less than a square kilometre of opposition-held areas. There were reports of people being shot in their homes and on streets as they fled, he added.
“Aleppo is falling one neighbourhood after the other,” said one activist inside the city, who is not being identified for his safety. “Now even those wanted [by the regime] are fleeing to the regime areas because of the intensity of bombing and hunger and cold and the huge number of wounded who can’t be treated, not to mention all the bodies in the streets.”
It was unclear on Tuesday how many civilians were trapped in the small patch of eastern Aleppo still in rebel hands.
Humanitarian workers in the city estimate 100,000 people have fled rebel areas but it is not clear how many remain. The fighting has left thousands of residents trapped under bombardment night and day, with food growing scarce after the months-long siege that preceded the attack.
“We stand ready to oversee the implementation of any mutual agreement that puts civilians first,” said ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, from Aleppo. “We cannot urge this strongly enough: this must happen now.”
President Bashar al-Assad is closer than ever to claiming victory against rebels in Aleppo, a city divided for four years between the government in the west and rebels in the east. Backed by Russian warplanes and foreign Shia fighters supported by Iran, his forces have made a rapid advance through rebel-held eastern districts. The speed of the advance has taken both the rebels and the regime by surprise and has complicated efforts to broker a deal to get civilians out.
One man inside Aleppo said he saw people holding blood transfusion bags walking the streets, perhaps evacuated from a clinic that had shut down.
The battle for Aleppo has been one of the bloodiest and most strategically important of the civil war, and the cost for those trapped in the crossfire has been high. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said 5,000 people have died in fighting in the past month.
Another activist shared a picture of a building reduced to rubble. “This building was yesterday destroyed. Until now 12 people are buried under the rubble, they died in peace, no one could help them,” he told journalists in an online chat group.
With the fate of thousands still inside rebel territory in the balance, diplomatic efforts have so far gone nowhere and world leaders have been largely silent. Russia, which backs Mr Assad, and the US, a reluctant rebel backer, have traded blame for the impasse.
Humanitarian officials who spoke to the Financial Times privately blamed both the rebels, the regime and Mr Assad’s foreign backers for wasting time haggling over the terms for how armed groups should withdraw — to which areas, and with which weapons, if any at all.
“Meanwhile, nobody cares about the civilians at all,” one official said. “One side is getting tense and the other side is getting cocky and they’re all putting all kinds of conditions.”
A diplomat involved in talks said Russia was planning to offer a deal for any civilian or fighter who dropped their weapons to depart for whatever area they choose, but said the deal had yet to be formalised. Some rebel officials insisted they were ready to accept any offer but had yet to hear a formal representation from Russia.
But one rebel commander indicated some fighters on the ground were still refusing a deal that required them to leave their weapons behind.
Omar Salkho, a rebel commander with the Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades inside the city, said the rebels were insisting they should be allowed to keep their weapons as well as clearer international guarantees of safety.
“They want a surrender which we will not accept. We want to leave with our light and heavy weapons in addition to our families,” he said. “The talks are not going anywhere, it is still back and forth. The last thing we reached was that they accepted we exit with our arms but not ammunition, and of course that was unacceptable.”