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The New Arab & agencies

War-weary residents return to battered streets of Aleppo

Vast swathes of Aleppo lie in ruin after nearly six years of conflict [AFP]

Date of publication: 23 December, 2016

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Braving harsh winter conditions and the prospect that former abodes have been destroyed residents have begun to return to former rebel-held areas in east Aleppo now under regime control
Residents in Aleppo have begun to return to their homes in the battered, devastated city after the Syrian regime announced it had taken control of all of the former rebel-held stronghold of east Aleppo on Thursday.

While thousands of east Aleppo residents have been bussed out of the district, the scene of some of the worst fighting and destruction of civilian infrastructures in Syria’s civil war, other war-weary residents crossed districts that had become infamous front lines, eager to return to neighbourhoods they had not seen in years.

Taking control of Aleppo marks the biggest victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly six year-long civil war, and his foreign backers in Moscow and Tehran.

In the city on Friday civilians wrapped in heavy coats to keep out the winter cold walked through war-torn streets, some rolling their belongings on wheelbarrows.

"I came to check on my house, which I haven't seen in five years," resident Khaled al-Masri said, speaking to AFP. "I really hope my home wasn't badly damaged."

Rubble and destruction

Last week’s evacuation deal, made possible by negotiations between Russia and Turkey, ended more than four years of ferocious fighting inside Aleppo, which had been divided between regime forces in the west and rebels in the east.

On Friday pro-regime fighters moved into Ansari and al-Mashhad, two neighborhoods they had not entered since mid-2012, wary of the potential threat of explosive devices and mines left behind by rebels.

Elsewhere in east Aleppo, AFP reported that bulldozers were busy removing rubble from streets in Bustan al-Qasr, as Syrian army troops also moved through the Al-Myassar district.

"There's nothing left ... but houses can be rebuilt," said Umm Abdo, 42, a local resident, who returned to Al-Myassar only to find her former home destroyed.

Rebel forces retain control of areas west of Aleppo, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that at least one civilian was killed, and a further eight injured in the Al-Hamdaniyeh district, as rebel rocket fire targeted a city many opposition fighters were reluctant to leave, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the victory of troops loyal to Assad in Aleppo as a process of “liberation” for the city claiming that it represents “a very important part of the normalization in Syria, and I hope, for the region overall”.

He has also vowed to “strive toward” a cessation of fighting across Syria at a time when Russia is expanding its naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, in the city of Tartus, where plans to develop a permanent air-force base are also said to be afoot.

Syria's war transformed Aleppo from the country's industrial hub to a worldwide symbol of bloodshed, suffering and devastation.

Jubilant scenes in west Aleppo

On Thursday, shortly after Syrian state television said that the last convoy of four busses had departed east Aleppo some scenes of jubilant celebration erupted in west Aleppo where car horns blared and residents chanted slogans in support of Bashar al-Assad.

Although both the Assad regime and its Russian backers have consistently referred to all opposition groups, and at times all residents of east Aleppo as “terrorists” forces loyal to Assad are viewed by monitors, to have been responsible for the vast majority of deaths in the city, and both the Syrian regime, Russian, and Iran have been accused of committing war crimes there.

The evacuation of residents of east Aleppo was overseen by the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, ending a month-long offensive waged on Aleppo's east by pro-regime forces.

The ICRC said the operation had seen 35,000 people bussed out of the last rebel-held pocket of territory in the city.

Another 1,200 people were also evacuated from al-Foua and Kfarya, two Shiite-majority towns in northwest Syria that had been besieged by rebels, as part of the agreement.

The evacuation was a pivotal moment in a war that has triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.

Nearly six years in, the conflict has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced half of Syria's pre-war population.

As well as a major strategic gain for Assad, the army's win in Aleppo has put the spotlight on the role of powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey, which agreed this week to guarantee new peace talks and backed expanding a cease-fire.

Repeated attempts at peace for Syria have failed, but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hopes to convene fresh talks in Geneva in February.

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