Defeated rebels prepare to flee Aleppo as ceasefire deal struck
Syrian rebels yesterday reached a ceasefire deal to allow an evacuation from eastern Aleppo in what is an effective surrender.
Russia declared all military action had stopped and the Syrian Government had assumed control of the former rebel enclave.
The dramatic developments, which appeared to restore the remainder of what was once Syria's largest city to President Bashar Assad's forces after months of heavy fighting and a crippling siege, followed reports of mass killings by regime forces closing in on the final few blocks still held by insurgents.
Damascus confirmed the evacuation deal, and the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that the safe withdrawal of people from the besieged area was now "imminent". He was at the Security Council where an emergency meeting for Aleppo was under way.
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, took to the floor near the end of the session at the UN Security Council to announce fighting had ended. "According to the latest information that we received... military actions in eastern Aleppo are over," Mr Churkin said. "The Syrian Government has re-established control over eastern Aleppo."
Minutes earlier he announced that "all militants" and members of their families, as well as those wounded in the fighting, were being evacuated through "agreed corridors in directions that they have chosen voluntarily", including the rebel stronghold of Idlib province.
Retaking Aleppo, which has been split between rebel and Assad control since 2012, would be his biggest victory yet in the civil war. The city, the country's former commercial powerhouse, has long been regarded as a major gateway between Turkey and Syria and the biggest prize in the conflict.
There were conflicting reports about the timing and route that the evacuation would take.
Syria's military media said the gunmen would be evacuated through the Ramouseh crossing and from there to rebel-controlled areas of northern Idlib province.
"Aleppo will be declared a secure and liberated city within the coming hours," it explained on its Telegram channel.
Osama Abu Zayd, a Turkey-based legal adviser for an umbrella group of rebel factions known as the Free Syrian Army, said the ceasefire went into effect yesterday evening and that the first groups of rebel fighters would begin evacuating later.
Yasser al-Youssef, a rebel spokesman, confirmed the deal, and another spokesman, Ahmed Karali, said those leaving the city would head to rural areas in western Aleppo province then move north.
The agreement came after world leaders and aid agencies issued dramatic appeals on behalf of trapped residents, and the UN human rights office said that pro-Government forces reportedly killed 82 civilians as they closed in on the last remaining rebel areas.
That and other reports of mass killings, which could not be independently confirmed, reinforced fears of atrocities in the final hours of the battle for the besieged city.