BEIRUT (AP) — The evacuation of the last remaining civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held sliver of eastern Aleppo will be completed in the coming hours, the Red Cross and state TV said Thursday, as 4,000 people were evacuated overnight and more gunmen and civilians braved freezing temperatures to leave.
The evacuations came as Syrian President Bashar Assad said his forces’ achievements in Aleppo are a “major step on the road to wiping out terrorism” and should pave the way toward ending Syria’s civil war.
By the early afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles carrying opposition fighters moved through the Ramousseh crossing on their way to the main drop-off point in the Rashideen district, just west of the city.
The evacuations were set in motion last week after Syria’s opposition agreed to surrender its last footholds in eastern Aleppo. Since then, some 35,000 fighters and civilians have been bused out, according to the United Nations. The ICRC said in a statement that more than 4,000 additional fighters were evacuated in private cars, vans, and pick-ups from eastern Aleppo since Wednesday.
“The bad weather, including heavy snow and wind, and the poor state of vehicles mean things are moving much more slowly than expected,” the ICRC statement said. “The evacuation will continue for the entire day and night and most probably tomorrow.”
The departures pave the way for President Bashar Assad to assume full control after more than four years of fighting over Syria’s largest city. It marks his most significant victory since an uprising against his family’s four-decade rule swept the country in 2011.
Ingy Sedky, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the few thousand remaining people will be evacuated in 40 buses and hundreds of private cars. She said another four buses will leave the besieged government-held villages of Foua and Kfarya in the northwestern province of Idlib in a parallel evacuation. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported that two of the four buses that left Foua and Kfarya have arrived in government-held areas in Aleppo and two others are being held until the last group leaves Aleppo.
Sedky said the Aleppo operation will take place over multiple stages and will likely be completed later on Thursday. Syrian state TV said “Aleppo will be free of terrorists within the next few hours.” Exclusive Associated Press footage from Aleppo showed armed rebels in pickup trucks leaving the eastern part of the city on Thursday through the Ramousseh crossing.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some 1,500 evacuees have decided to stay in government-controlled areas. He said a snow storm delayed the evacuation of civilians to rebel-held areas on the western outskirts of the city.
The victory by Assad’s forces in Aleppo came amid intense fighting in the nearby town of al-Bab that is held by the Islamic State group as Turkish troops and allied opposition fighters are trying to storm it.
In Turkey, Defense Ministe Fikri Isik said two Turkish soldiers wounded in a battle to retake al-Bab have died, raising the death toll in two days of fighting to 16.
Isik told Turkey’s parliament that the two died Thursday from wounds that were sustained in three separate IS suicide attacks in the town of al-Bab a day earlier.
Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to support Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces in clearing a border area of IS militants and to prevent Syrian Kurds from making greater territorial advances.
Thursday’s fatalities bring the number of Turkish soldiers killed so far in northern Syria to 37.
The Observatory said that Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab the day before killed 24 people, including seven children and 10 women, and wounded many others. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency reported 48 Turkish air raids on al-Bab on Wednesday in addition to dozens of missiles.
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