An agreement has been reached to evacuate civilians and opposition fighters from the besieged eastern districts of the city of Aleppo, a senior Turkish official and rebel officials have announced.
The deal will offer some hope of survival to the people of east Aleppo, who the United Nations said on Tuesday had endured a brutal “meltdown of humanity” as forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, rampaged through newly reclaimed districts reportedly carrying out extrajudicial killings.
The agreement, which has effectively ended the battle for Aleppo after four years of fighting, capped weeks of immense suffering and violence that have left residents in total despair and increasingly angry at the international community for abandoning them to their fate.
The reports of killings by the advancing regime forces, who are led by Iranian-backed militias, raised grave concerns over the fate of tens of thousands of civilians, doctors and activists who have remained in the shrinking rebel enclaves, and who faced death if they stayed there or being tortured and killed in regime-held areas if they fled over government lines.
Under the terms of the deal, negotiated between Turkish intelligence and the Russian military, a ceasefire went into effect at 6pm local time.
Soon afterwards, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N, Vitaly Churkin, said that fighting in the east of the city had ended. “According to the latest information that we received in the last hour, military actions in eastern Aleppo are over,” he told reporters in New York.
The senior Turkish official said Ankara and Moscow would act as guarantors of the agreement, which would allow “civilians and moderate rebels with light weapons” to leave Aleppo for Idlib province.
“Once they reach Idlib, they will be free to relocate,” the official added.
The United Nations said it had received reliable reports from multiple sources that pro-Assad forces, including the Iraqi Shia militia Harakat al-Nujaba, had carried out summary killings of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children in four different neighbourhoods of east Aleppo that had fallen under government control.
“Civilians have paid a brutal price during this conflict, and we are filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held eastern Aleppo,” said Rupert Colville, the UN’s human rights spokesman, before the ceasefire deal emerged.
A senior western diplomat said: “The last days have been a brutal assault on Aleppo, Syrians and the international system. Condemnable that Russia and Iran abetted this dictator in meting out such suffering. This is the path to yet more war. Not peace.”
“The sky is crying for Aleppo with soft tears,” said one teacher in the city, referring to the rainfall that had slowed down the relentless aerial bombardment of recent days, in a text message. “The sky is much kinder than human beings. For this we will stay there finally. There is no justice but in heaven.”
The UN children’s fund said earlier in the day that 100 children were reportedly trapped inside a building under attack in besieged Aleppo.
“According to alarming reports from a doctor in the city, many children, possibly more than 100, unaccompanied or separated from their families, are trapped in a building, under heavy attack in east Aleppo,” Unicef said in a statement. “We urge all parties to the conflict to allow the safe and immediate evacuation of all children.”
Rebel officials from Nour al-din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, two powerful opposition groups with a presence in the city, confirmed the deal to evacuate, but there was confusion over exactly where the opposition would have to go, with rebels saying they would be transported to the western Aleppo countryside.
“An agreement has been reached to evacuate the citizens of Aleppo, the wounded, and the armed opposition with their light weapons from the besieged districts of east Aleppo,” said Yasser al Youssef, a spokesman for Nour al-din al-Zenki.
A spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham said the evacuations could occur as early as Tuesday night. A Syrian military official said the evacuations would begin at 5am on Wednesday.
“I really, really hope this deal will materialise because the suffering of civilians on both sides has been immense,” said Pawel Krzysiek, head of media at the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was in Aleppo. “There is a human tragedy happening all over the city. People who lost everything are suffering here enormously.”
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, addressing the security council on the situation in Aleppo on Tuesday evening, said it was wishful thinking to believe that military advances would solve Syria’s crisis, and called for an immediate end to violence by all sides.
The evacuation of east Aleppo means the opposition will cede the entire city, Syria’s former commercial capital, to the Assad regime, surrendering the last major urban stronghold where it maintained an active presence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had 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, a UN spokesman, said it looked like there had been a “complete meltdown of humanity” in the city.
The Red Cross had 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 could be reached as Assad’s forces closed in on remaining opposition enclaves and a key victory in the civil war after an offensive supported by Russian air power.
People in east Aleppo issued distress calls and appeals to the international community to rescue them from retribution, continuing to post farewell messages on Monday night and into Tuesday morning, predicting they would either die in 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 to escape hunger and cold.
Via The Guardian