Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.
The ceasefire was negotiated by Turkey and Russia.
The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a six-year civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shia militias.
For rebels, their expected departure, starting on Wednesday morning for opposition-held regions west of the city, is a crushing blow to their hopes of ousting Mr Assad after revolting against him during the 2011 Arab uprisings.
However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining their rural stronghold of Idlib province to the southwest of Aleppo, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east of Syria and recapturing Palmyra this week.
“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a heated UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday.
“The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”
Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and a source in the pro-Assad military alliance said the evacuation of fighters would begin at about dawn on Wednesday.
A Reuters reporter in Aleppo said late on Tuesday that the booms of the bombardment could no longer be heard.
Fighters and their families, along with civilians who have thrown in their lot with the rebels, will have until Wednesday evening to quit the city, a Turkish government source said on Tuesday.
A commander with the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said that Aleppo was a moral victory for the insurgents. “We were steadfast . . . but unfortunately nobody stood with us at all”, the commander, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Syrian rebels announced the ceasefire in Aleppo following talks between insurgents and Russia.
The deal signals Damascus’s biggest victory over insurgents fighting to unseat Assad, driving them from their last major urban stronghold.
A rebel official told Reuters that Moscow and insurgent factions agreed in their talks to a halt to air strikes, which he said took effect early on Tuesday.
“There was negotiation with the Russians last night . . . the first thing [agreed] was that [aerial] bombardments should stop today, so today the bombardment stopped in the morning, but clashes continued,” Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, said.
“There’s [currently] a cessation of bombardments. Now . . . a ceasefire is being discussed, so tonight . . . a ceasefire should happen.”
A rebel official from the Jabha Shamiya group said the first group of people were due to leave the remaining rebel-held pockets of eastern Aleppo in the coming hours.
The official said the wounded would probably leave first, and that the majority of the estimated 50,000 people still in eastern Aleppo would depart.
A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters from the rebel-controlled western Aleppo countryside would start at 05.00am (03.00am GMT) on Wednesday.
The source said fighters’ families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.
The Syrian army and its allies have driven rebels out of most of the areas of Aleppo they held for years in the space of just weeks, aided by Russian air strikes and the military support of Iran, Lebanese Hizbullah and other militias.
The news follows reports that pro-Syrian regime forces had been entering homes in the last remaining rebel strongholds in eastern Aleppo and killing civilians on the spot.
The UN’s human rights office said it had received reports that 82 civilians had been killed across four different neighbourhoods.
“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” Rupert Colville, a UN spokesman, said. “There could be many more.”
Unverified reports of extrajudicial killings in the area by forces loyal to Mr Assad, as well as mass detentions and arrests, have surfaced in recent days.
In one image circulated by a pro-government parliamentarian, dozens of Syrian men and boys from east Aleppo stand in a detention camp in front of Syrian army soldiers.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were corpses abandoned in the streets, with residents too terrified by the shelling to bury them.
“Real massacres” were taking place in the city, the war monitor said.
Jens Laerke, another UN spokesman, said it looked like there had been a “complete meltdown of humanity” in the city.
The Red Cross has urgently appealed for civilians in east Aleppo to be protected “before it is too late”, adding that it was ready to help with evacuations if an agreement can be reached, as Assad’s forces closed in on remaining opposition enclaves.
Running out of time
“We need to act now,” said Pawel Krzysiek, the head of communications at the international committee of the Red Cross, who is in Aleppo.
“We need to depoliticise the process of protecting civilians. We need to put their lives first. And we need to do it now before it is not too late.
“We are ready to implement any provision of any agreement between the parties for the sake of civilians.
“This is our role as neutral intermediary and we are on standby. But we are also running out of time here and we need to act before it is too late so we can save the lives of civilians that still can be saved.”
People in east Aleppo, who have issued distress calls and appeals to the international community to rescue them from retribution, continued to post farewell messages into Tuesday morning, predicting they would either die by the ongoing bombardment or be tortured and killed if they surrendered.
“Please just tell our stories to the world, please let my son be proud of his father,” said one resident of east Aleppo in a text message.
A doctor described the situation as “beyond a tragedy”, with corpses in the street and people attempting to flee to government-held areas as a result of hunger and cold.
“We are besieged from all sides and death is coming from the air,” he said.
“Remember that there was once a city called Aleppo that the world erased from the camp and from history. This is a farewell message [from a doctor] whose fate along with that of his companions is death or arrest at any moment.”
Blood and IV drips
One resident reported that the air strikes had subsided by Tuesday morning due to lower visibility and rain, offering a brief respite to civilians who were still on the move and seeking shelter in the rebel districts.
Some of those attempting to find shelter away from the frontlines were carrying blood and IV drips as they marched through rebel-held districts, another resident said.
On Monday evening, the UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, expressed “grave concern“ over reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children.
In a statement, Mr Ban stressed the obligation of all parties “to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law. This is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies”.
The UN humanitarian adviser on Syria, Jan Egeland, said the Syrian and Russian governments must be held responsible for any atrocities committed by militias loyal to Assad.
The Syrian army and its allies are in the “last moments before declaring victory” in Aleppo, a Syrian military source had told Reuters, after rebel defences collapsed on Monday, leaving insurgents in a tiny, heavily-bombarded pocket of ground.
The ICRC said: “Thousands of civilians’ lives are in danger as frontlines close in around them in eastern Aleppo.
“As the battle reaches new peaks and the area is plunged into chaos, thousands with no part in the violence have literally nowhere safe to run.
“A deepening humanitarian catastrophe and further loss of life can be averted only if the basic rules of warfare – and of humanity – are applied.”
Reuters, Guardian and PA