Thursday 14 December 2017

Last rebel fighters warned to flee Aleppo as Russia pushes peace deal

Christian militia fighters show four men believed to be members of Isil who were found inside a tunnel in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Photo: JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Christian militia fighters show four men believed to be members of Isil who were found inside a tunnel in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Photo: JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian girl evacuated from Aleppo eats after arriving in the Khan al-Assal region, west of the embattled city. Photo: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Angus McDowall

The Syrian army closed in on the last rebel enclave in Aleppo yesterday, using loudspeakers to warn any remaining insurgents and civilians to flee the area.

The thinly veiled threats came as Russia, Iran and Turkey said they were ready to help broker a Syrian peace deal.

Complete control of Aleppo would be a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad against rebels who have defied him in Syria's most populous city for four years.

Ministers from Russia, Iran and Turkey adopted a document they called the 'Moscow Declaration', which set out the principles that any peace agreement should follow. At talks in the Russian capital, they also backed an expanded ceasefire in Syria.

The move underlines the growing strength of Moscow's links with Tehran and Ankara, despite the murder on Monday of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, and reflects Russian President Vladimir Putin's desire to cement his influence in the Middle East and beyond.

Russia and Iran back Mr Assad, while Turkey has backed some rebel groups.

An operation to evacuate civilians and fighters from rebel-held eastern Aleppo has now brought out 37,500 people since late last week, according to Turkey. As more buses left yesterday, Turkish and Russian ministers estimated the evacuation would be complete within two days.

But it is hard to know if that goal is realistic, given the problems that have beset the evacuation so far and the wide variation in estimates of how many have left and how many remain. The International Committee of the Red Cross put the number evacuated since the operation began on Thursday at only 25,000.

A rebel official in Turkey said that even after thousands left on Monday, only about half of the civilians who wanted to leave had done so.

Insurgent fighters would leave only once all the civilians who wanted to go had departed, the rebel said. The ceasefire and evacuation agreement allows rebels to carry personal weapons but not heavier arms.

Estimates of the number waiting for evacuation range from a few thousand to tens of thousands.

The United Nations said Syria had authorised the world body to send 20 more staff to east Aleppo who would monitor the evacuation.

A UN official said 750 people had been evacuated from the two besieged Shi'ite villages of Foua and Kefraya, which government forces had insisted must be included in the deal to bring people out of Aleppo.

The evacuations are part of a ceasefire arrangement that ends fighting in Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city.

Conditions for those being evacuated are grim, with evacuees waiting for convoys of buses in freezing winter temperatures. An aid worker said that some evacuees had reported that children had died during the long, cold wait.

In government-held parts of Aleppo, the mood was very different.

A large crowd thronged to a sports hall in the city, waving Syrian flags and dancing to patriotic music, a large portrait of Mr Assad hanging on one wall, in a celebration of the rebels' defeat in the city that was broadcast live on state television.

The rebel withdrawal from Aleppo after a series of rapid advances by the army and allied Shi'ite militias including Hezbollah since late November has brought Mr Assad his biggest victory of the nearly six-year-old war.

However, despite the capture of Aleppo and progress against insurgents near Damascus, the fighting is far from over, with large areas remaining in rebel control in the northwestern countryside and in the far south.

The jihadist group Isil also controls swathes of territory in the deserts and Euphrates river basin in eastern Syria.

Irish Independent

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