Aleppo evacuations gain pace as rebels, civilians leave

There's been no sign of evacuations from two villages besieged by rebels in the neighbouring Idlib province.

Buses are seen during an evacuation operation of Syrian rebel fighters and civilians from a opposition-held area of Aleppo towards rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo’s province on 16 December, 2016. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT – Evacuations of rebel fighters and civilians including wounded from the last opposition-held areas of Syria’s Aleppo gathered pace early on Friday under a ceasefire that would see the government retake the city, monitors and a rebel official said.

There was no sign, however, of evacuations from two villages besieged by rebels in neighbouring Idlib province, which were expected to be included in the deal.

At least 6,000 people had left rebel-held Aleppo in several convoys of buses and ambulances since Thursday, when the evacuations began, Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group told Reuters.

The number included some 900 wounded, both fighters and civilians, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the total number was closer to 8,000, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded.

A statement from the pro-Damascus military alliance that includes Hezbollah said more than 8,000 had left in 10 convoys.

The number of buses being used had doubled to about 50, Malahifji said, suggesting the speed of evacuations was increasing.

“There are a lot of buses now,” Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said.

Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas of control in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November saw the insurgents lose most of their territory in a matter of weeks.

The ceasefire deal, brokered by Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backers Turkey earlier in the week, initially broke down on Wednesday as fighting resumed and Iran reportedly introduced a new demand for the evacuation of two Shi’ite-majority villages in Idlib.

Thousands are expected to evacuate the villages, Foua and Kefraya, which have long been besieged by insurgents in the mostly rebel-held province. It was unclear why the evacuations had not yet begun, but a convoy set off to evacuate the villages on Thursday, Syrian state media said.