Thursday, December 22, 2016
Syrian army has retaken complete control of Aleppo
By Ellen Francis | BEIRUT
The Syrian army said it had retaken complete control of Aleppo on Thursday after the last rebel fighters were evacuated from the city, handing President Bashar al-Assad his biggest victory of the war. The military said it had brought "the return of safety and security to the city of Aleppo", ending four years of rebel resistance in the northern Syrian city.
"This victory constitutes an important turning point," an army statement said. The recapture of Aleppo is Assad's most important gain so far in a nearly six-year-old war that claimed the lives of 300.000 people, but the fighting is not over with large parts of the country still controlled by insurgent and Islamist groups.
The last group of rebels and their families holed up in a small eastern enclave of Aleppo were evacuated under a deal that gives the army and its allies full control of the city, Syrian state television said.
At least 34,000 people, both civilians and fighters, have been evacuated from east Aleppo in a week-long operation hampered by severe winter weather, according to the United Nations, which estimates that thousands more remain behind. The last evacuees left a tiny pocket that was all that remained of a rebel sector that covered nearly half the city before being besieged in the summer and hit by intense air strikes that reduced much of it to rubble. As the months of bombardment wore on, rescue and health services collapsed and casualties mounted.
The final phase of the evacuation ended when a convoy carrying nearly 150 people, including fighters and members of their families, departed toward rebel-held areas outside the city, state television said.
State media showed a convoy crossing from the Ramousah highway junction in south Aleppo to al-Rashideen in the countryside just southwest of the city. "A short while ago, the last group from Aleppo arrived in the western countryside," said a spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group. In parallel, two buses carrying people from the pro-government villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebels in Idlib province, arrived in government-held Aleppo.
A total of 900 people were transferred from the villages to government-held parts of Aleppo during the week-long evacuation process, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war. Government forces had insisted the two villages must be included in the deal to bring people out of Aleppo.
Under a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, convoys of buses and cars have shuttled thousands of civilians and fighters out of Aleppo's last rebel-held pocket toward opposition areas outside the city since late last week. Those leaving Aleppo were not only going to Idlib, a city and province southwest of Aleppo, but to villages in the countryside in Aleppo province that lies west and north of the city and has also been heavily bombed. A rebel official said a heavy snow storm that hit northern Syria and the sheer numbers involved had delayed the evacuation.