Syrian government forces are close to victory in Aleppo
There are conflicting reports over whether evacuations have finished in the city
Syrian pro-government forces on patrol as snow falls in Aleppo. Photograph: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad appeared close to victory in Aleppo on Wednesday, but UN and rebel officials denied that an operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the city had been completed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the country’s civil war, said Assad had control of Aleppo after the last fighters were brought out of the city and only one small position on its western outskirts remained in rebel hands.
But a UN official in Syria, asked about the Observatory report, told Reuters: “That is not something we can confirm. Evacuations are still ongoing.”
The UN said it had sent 20 more staff to east Aleppo to monitor the evacuation.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army rebel alliance, Osama Abu Zaid, told an Arab news channel that evacuations had been slowed by bad weather and would continue into the night.
Aid workers also said the evacuation was not yet finished, while in Washington the US state department said it could not confirm that all rebel fighters had left.
For Assad, the biggest prize of Syria’s nearly six-year-old civil war would be the fighters’ departure from Aleppo, ending a battle which the Observatory said had killed 21,500 civilians in and near the city.
Earlier, buses carrying civilians and fighters began leaving Aleppo’s last rebel-held enclave after being held up for a day.
People had been waiting in freezing temperatures since the evacuation hit problems on Tuesday, as dozens of buses were held up in Aleppo, and the evacuation of two Shia villages outside the city, al-Foua and Kefraya, also stalled.
Rebels and government forces blamed each other for the hold-up.
The charity Save the Children said heavy snow was hampering efforts to help injured children.
“Many have had to have limbs amputated because they did not receive care on time, and far too many are weak and malnourished,” a statement said.
Many of those who had escaped Aleppo were sleeping in unheated buildings or tents in sub-zero temperatures.
Children have been separated from their parents in the chaos as they run to get food when they get off the buses, the charity said.
With obstructions to the evacuation plan apparently overcome on Wednesday, a news service run by the Lebanese group Hizbullah said 20 buses carrying fighters and their families had moved from east Aleppo towards rebel-held areas in the countryside.
Syrian TV said a number of buses had also arrived in government-controlled parts of Aleppo from al-Foua and Kefraya.
Government forces had insisted evacuations from the two villages must be included in the deal to bring people out of east Aleppo.
So far, about 30,000 people have been evacuated from Aleppo, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Aleppo’s rebel zone is a wasteland of flattened buildings, rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands lived until recent days under intense bombardment, even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.
Rebel-held parts of the once-flourishing economic centre with renowned ancient sites have been pulverised in the civil war, which has killed more than 300,000, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
But in the western part of the city, held throughout the war by the government, there were big street parties on Tuesday night, along with the lighting of a Christmas tree, as residents celebrated the end of fighting.
Syrian state TV said on Wednesday the army would enter the last remaining rebel-held sector of Aleppo as soon as all fighters had left.
That would be a major victory for Assad, and his main allies Iran and Russia, against the rebels who have defied him in Syria’s most populous city for four years.
Assad’s government is backed by Russian air power and Shia militias, including Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement and Iraq’s Harakat al-Nujaba.
The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the US and Gulf monarchies.
For four years, the city was split between a rebel-held east and government-held west.
During the summer, the army and allied forces besieged the rebel sector, before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.
Russian air strikes enabled Assad’s forces to press the siege of eastern Aleppo to devastating effect.
Shia militias from as far afield as Afghanistan also played an important role.
But even with victory in Aleppo, Assad still faces great challenges.
While he controls the most important cities in western Syria and on the coast, armed groups including Islamic State control swathes of territory elsewhere in the country.