Last Remaining Rebels and Civilians Await Aleppo Evacuation

Syrians evacuated from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo during the ceasefire arrive at a refugee camp in Rashidin, near Idlib, Syria, Dec. 19, 2016. (AP Photo)
Syrians evacuated from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo during the ceasefire arrive at a refugee camp in Rashidin, near Idlib, Syria, Dec. 19, 2016. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT — Hundreds more Syrians left the rebels' last foothold in eastern Aleppo in convoys of buses escorted by the Syrian Red Crescent and the international Red Cross on Tuesday under a cease-fire deal brokered by Ankara and Russia.

The evacuations came as Moscow was hosting the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey in three-way talks on Aleppo's future and prospects for peace in Syria. The development followed a U.N. Security Council resolution that was agreed on Monday night to send observers to monitor the exodus.

The talks in the Russian capital, however, are likely to be overshadowed by the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey the previous night by an Ankara policeman, who after killing his victim cried out: "Don't forget Aleppo! Don't forget Syria!"

Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that Ambassador Andrei Karlov's murder plays into the hands of those who want to derail peace talks for Syria as well as "drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey."

Russia and Turkey back opposite sides in the Syrian war — Moscow is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Ankara backs the rebels seeking to topple him.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it has overseen the evacuation of 25,000 people from east Aleppo since rebels effectively surrendered the area to the Syrian government. The evacuations are part of the cease-fire deal earlier this month that returns all of Syria's largest city and its former commercial capital to government control, after nearly six years of war.

Residents from eastern Aleppo and the Syrian opposition say the evacuation amounts to forced displacement. Months of devastating Syrian and Russian air raids that destroyed buildings, hospitals and schools in the enclave — and reduced much of eastern Aleppo to a landscape of rubble — left the residents with little choice but to flee.

Ingy Sedky, Damascus spokeswoman for the ICRC, said thousands more still await evacuation and operations would continue throughout the day.

It was unclear if the evacuations would be completely finished on Tuesday but the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said Syrian army troops would enter the last patch of the opposition's enclave later in the day. Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad forces, warned the remaining residents in the rebel enclave on Tuesday to leave "as quickly as possible" in statements broadcast by a Hezbollah media arm.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 15,000 people, among them 5,000 opposition fighters, have left the enclave since last week.

Syrian state media say several more buses had arrived to the government-controlled Aleppo countryside after evacuating the sick and wounded from the rebel-besieged Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya.

The swap evacuations are part of the Aleppo cease-fire deal — Syrian rebels besieging the two villages agreed to allow over 2,000 people to leave from there in exchange for the government allowing civilians and rebels to leave eastern Aleppo.

Pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast live images showing buses arriving from Foua and Kfarya, escorted by International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles, on Tuesday.

Hezbollah's media arm said eight buses left the two villages earlier in the morning.

The taking of all of eastern Aleppo would mark Assad's greatest victory since the 2011 uprising against his family's four-decade rule, but the cost has been staggering. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced, many of whom may never return.

Also, Syria's civil war is far from over — the opposition still controls the northwestern Idlib province and pockets of territory elsewhere in the country, while the Islamic State group rules a large swath of the northeast.

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Associated Press Writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to his report.

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