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'Last convoys' leaving Syria's rebel-held Aleppo


ALEPPO (SYRIA)  - Convoys carried opposition fighters out of the last rebel pocket of Aleppo Thursday in the final phase of an evacuation clearing the way for Syria's army to retake the city.

The evacuation effort has been hampered in recent days by heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures -- leaving evacuees waiting in unheated buses for hours -- but aid workers said it appeared to be reaching its end.

"We expect today to be the last convoys, the operation will continue all day long and during the night," said Ingy Sedky, the spokeswoman in Syria for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

About 34,000 people have left the one-time opposition stronghold of east Aleppo since last Thursday, including all of the wounded and sick in critical condition, according to the ICRC, which is assisting in the evacuation.

Rebel forces, who seized control of east Aleppo in 2012, agreed to withdraw from the bastion after a month-long army offensive that drove them from more than 90 percent of their former territory.

The agreement was brokered by Russia, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad that launched air strikes in support of his regime last year, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.

Once the evacuations are complete Assad's forces will be able to claim total control of Aleppo, in the regime's biggest victory in more than five years of civil war.

An AFP correspondent on Thursday morning saw a convoy of about 20 pick-up trucks and cars carrying armed rebels pass through Ramussa, the government-held district of southern Aleppo through which evacuation convoys have been leaving.

- 'Roads snowed under' -

Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers coordinating evacuations, said some 400 vehicles had arrived overnight Thursday in Khan al-Assal, the staging ground where evacuees from Aleppo arrive.

It was unclear how many people -- either fighters or civilians -- remained.

The heavy snowfall from the day before, which blanketed Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, had stopped but was still slowing down the evacuations.

"It is hard to say when the operation will be finished because the roads are snowed under," said Ahmad Qarra Ali of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.

At the staging ground in Khan al-Assal, an AFP journalist early on Thursday saw two buses headed for Aleppo carrying residents who are also being evacuated from rebel-besieged villages.

As part of the Aleppo evacuation deal, it was agreed that some residents would be allowed to leave Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shiite-majority villages in northwestern Syria that are under siege by the Sunni Muslim rebels.

Shiite-dominated Iran, another key Assad ally, was reported to have insisted on the Fuaa and Kafraya evacuations.

At least 750 people have been able to leave the villages in recent days, most passing through Khan al-Assal on their way to Aleppo.

The evacuation of Aleppo's rebel sector is a pivotal moment in a war that has killed more than 310,000 people and triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.

- UN to probe war crimes -

On Wednesday the UN General Assembly agreed to set up a panel to gather evidence on war crimes during the conflict.

The panel will work closely with the UN Commission of Inquiry which has submitted several reports detailing atrocities committed during the war.

Syria's ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari slammed the measure, calling it "flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a UN member-state."

Russia, China and Iran were among the countries that opposed the measure.

France and Britain are also pushing the UN Security Council to ban the sale of helicopters to Syria and to impose the first sanctions over the use of chemical weapons in the war.

A draft resolution obtained by AFP on Wednesday calls for asset freezes and travel bans against four Syrian officials and 10 entities including a Syrian research centre tied to chemical weapons development.

Diplomats however said the measure is certain to be vetoed by Russia, which has blocked council action on Syria with six vetoes so far.

As well as handing a major victory to Assad, the rebel withdrawal from Aleppo has given fresh impetus to international efforts to end the conflict.

Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed this week to guarantee Syria peace talks and backed expanding a ceasefire, laying down their claim as the main powerbrokers in the war.

Repeated attempts at peace have failed, but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hopes to convene fresh talks in Geneva in February.



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Muslim Global: 'Last convoys' leaving Syria's rebel-held Aleppo
'Last convoys' leaving Syria's rebel-held Aleppo
Muslim Global
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