Last civilians, rebels leaving Aleppo amid heavy snowstorm

Last civilians, rebels leaving Aleppo amid heavy snowstorm
Nearly 30,000 civilians and rebels have left the one-time opposition stronghold of east Aleppo since Thursday as Syrian regime forces take full control of the city.
3 min read
22 December, 2016
Evacuees spent hours in freezing temperatures waiting in the buses to depart [Anadolu]

The last convoys of rebels and civilians were preparing on Wednesday to evacuate Aleppo in heavy snow, clearing the path for Syrian regime forces to take full control of the city after four years of war.

Around 30,000 people have left the one-time opposition stronghold of east Aleppo since Thursday, including all of the wounded and sick in critical condition, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

President Bashar al-Assad's government is waiting for the end of the evacuations so it can declare the completion of the offensive to recapture the one-time rebel stronghold.

The retreat from Aleppo - which had been divided into a rebel-held east and government-controlled west since 2012 - marks the biggest victory for Assad's forces in nearly six years of civil war.

It follows a month-long army offensive and weeks of siege that killed hundreds of people and left rebels with less than 10 percent of the territory they once controlled in the city.

Despite a snowstorm on Wednesday, the evacuations continued during the day using dozens of buses and other vehicles.

The evacuations - agreed under a Russian and Turkish-brokered deal reached last week - also faced delays as they have been plagued by repeated holdups.

Red Cross spokesperson Ingy Sedky said the "last convoys were still waiting to be evacuated from east Aleppo", and that the operation would involve "multiple" trips.

A Syrian military source said the evacuations were progressing without any obstacles.

"The announcement of the end of the operation will take place when it is completely finished," the source told AFP.

Ahmad Qarra Ali of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said bad weather had caused delays.

"Civilians and insurgents have not yet got on the buses," he said.

'Dire' conditions for evacuees

During the delays, the evacuees spent hours in freezing temperatures waiting in the buses to depart, as snow blanketed Aleppo and swirled through its crumbled buildings.

"The buses are not heated. The passengers, including women, children and elderly people, are suffering from the cold. They don't have food or water," said Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers coordinating evacuations.

The charity Save the Children warned that those fleeing the shrinking rebel enclave face "dire" conditions, sleeping in unheated buildings or tents in sub-zero temperatures.

It said thousands of people had arrived in rural Aleppo and Idlib over the last few days, but heavy snow was hampering efforts to give them aid. 

"The thousands of young children and babies among them are extremely vulnerable, particularly as many children are weakened and malnourished after months under siege without proper food," it said.

The delays on Wednesday appeared to be connected with a parallel evacuation of residents taking place in the villages of Fouaa and Kafraya in northwestern Syria.

The two pro-regime Shia villages are under siege by the rebels, who are mainly Sunni Muslims.

Shia-dominated Iran, another key Assad ally, was reported to have insisted on the evacuations of Fouaa and Kafraya for the Aleppo withdrawal to go ahead.

Delays in the evacuations were also reported there, but state television reported later Wednesday that four buses, and two ambulances carrying wounded, had been able to leave.

The evacuation of Aleppo's rebel sector is a pivotal moment in a war that has killed more than 310,000 people and triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.