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'Battle for Aleppo over' as Russia 'ends operations'

Regime forces are taking over the last districts in Aleppo [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 December, 2016

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During an emergency UN summit, Moscow claimed that pro-regime forces have ended their assault on Syria's second city Aleppo, but warned fighters could still be targeted.
Pro-Syrian regime forces have ended operations in Aleppo, with a truce agreed with the opposition, Russia's UN envoy has claimed.

Opposition groups and Turkey also confirmed that an agreement for rebel fighters and family members to leave the city, which would effectively hand over control of Aleppo to the Syrian regime.

However, Moscow's hinted that bombing would continue against "Islamic State group" and "al-Qaeda" fighters with this clause used by Russia to target all rebel areas throughout the conflict.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters following an emergency UN summit on Aleppo that rebel fighters and their families will be evacuated from the city following an agreement between the opposition. 

"In the process of that, the military operations stopped.  There is no need for military operations because they are leaving," the ambassador said.

Clause

But his warning of further action against IS and Fatah al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate, left open fears of continued bombardment of a tiny rebel enclave that has become a refuge for tens of thousands of civilians.

"This has been adopted at the moment the rebels are ready to comply to its conditions," he said. "The cessation of hostilities will not apply to Jabhat al-Nusra [Fatah al-Sham's former name] or [the Islamic State group. Combat against them will continue."

Despite the vast majority of rebels in East Aleppo having no links to al-Qaeda or IS, Russia has used its claims as a justification to pound the city.

US Ambassador Samantha Powers reminded the UN security council that regime forces had also used this clause to bombard the Damascus suburb of Daraya right until the last moment civilians left the district.

Despite this, Churkin sounded upbeat about fighting ending and the regime taking full control of the city.

"The joint actions agreed with the US [now means] we have now a real chance to end the violence."
According to the latest information that we received in the last hour, military actions in eastern Aleppo are over.
- Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN

Russia's push for the expulsion of rebel fighters and their families from Aleppo comes as reports of massacres in Aleppo by regime forces emerged.

Russia also appears keen to gain the support for the regime's military offensive in Aleppo after international opinion turned against the Russian-Syrian regime in recent days following massive bombing and shootings of civilians.

Churkin said the battle for the city was now effectively over and rebels had agreed to surrender.

"The bottom line is - if everything is okay - that means that the fighting around eastern Aleppo is over," Churkin said.

Emergency debate

During the debate, Churkin said that rebels were leaving the city in "directions they have chosen themselves, voluntarily", including rebel-held Idlib province.

"According to the latest information that we received in the last hour, military actions in eastern Aleppo are over, so there is no issue of some cessation of hostilities or some special humanitarian operation," he said.

"The Syrian government has re-established control over eastern Aleppo."

Rebel groups based in Aleppo said they had agreed to a truce in principle. 

Turkey which has been a key backer for the rebels in Aleppo said confirmed that a ceasefire deal was agreed following talks between the Syrian opposition and Russia for rebels to leave the city.

"We can confirm there is a ceasefire in the city after talks between Russian military and the opposition in eastern Aleppo," Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters.

[Observers should] oversee the safe evacuation of the people who wish to leave but who, justifiably fear that if they try, they will be shot in the street or carted off to one of Assad's gulags.
- Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN


However, AFP journalists said there was no movement from rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Tuesday night through so-called "humanitarian corridors".

Buses that were to be used to escort rebels out of the area sat empty, the agency said.

Observers

France and the UK called for the UN meeting as fears heightened of further massacres by regime forces who moved deeper into East Aleppo on Tuesday.

Activists said they were spared the worst of the bombing which Aleppo has witnessed in past weeks due to bad weather.

Reports did come out of Aleppo of women and children trapped in a building which came under fire from regime artillery.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the regime - and allies Russia and Iran" "urgently allow the remaining civilians to escape the area" and provide aid.

Syria has refused to allow UN officials in Aleppo to verify the situation although the UN has confirmed the killing of at least dozens of civilians - including 11 women and 13 children - by pro-regime militias.

US Ambassador Power called for international observers to be sent to Aleppo to "oversee the safe evacuation of the people who wish to leave but who, justifiably fear that if they try, they will be shot in the street or carted off to one of Assad's gulags".

Some of the remaining civilians inside Aleppo are medical staff and activists who are not included in the evacuation deal, and fear they will be arrested, tortured or killed by regime forces if they surrender.

Agencies contibuted to this story.

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