The evacuation of the last rebel-held areas of Syria’s Aleppo was set to begin on Thursday, with opposition fighters and civilians preparing to leave the city after years of fighting. The rebel withdrawal will pave the way for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to reclaim complete control of Syria’s second city, handing the regime its biggest victory in more than five years of civil war. More than a dozen empty buses and several ambulances moved towards a staging area in the south of the city where evacuees were expected to arrive and board the vehicles, an AFP correspondent said. Syrian state television reported that at least 4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated under the plan. “All the procedures for their evacuation are ready,” it said.
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A first evacuation expected to take place on Wednesday morning fell apart, with artillery exchanges and resumed air strikes rocking the city until the early hours on Thursday. But the agreement, brokered by Syrian regime ally Moscow and opposition supporter Ankara, was revived following fresh talks.
The defence ministry in Moscow said that Syrian authorities had guaranteed the safety of the rebels leaving the city and confirmed preparations were underway. It said the rebels would be evacuated towards the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, a major opposition stronghold.
The Russian military said it was monitoring the operation with surveillance cameras and drones. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was asked to help in the evacuation of the wounded and had sent 10 ambulances and about 100 volunteers and staff from the Red Crescent to assist.
“The teams are on the spot,” said Ingy Sedky, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Syria. “Ambulances have started to move to the other side, crossing the front line to evacuate the wounded,” she told media. Rebel officials said the evacuees would leave via the district of Al-Amiriyah, and then cross through the government-controlled area of Ramoussa on the southern outskirts of the city.
Earlier, Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a unit of doctors and other volunteers that are coordinating the evacuation of wounded people, said injured civilians and their families were already gathering at Al-Amiriyah.
Dbis said there were reports that regime forces had fired on an ambulance transporting the injured to Al-Amiriyah, wounding three people including a member of the White Helmets civil defence organisation. One of the wounded was initially reported to have died, he said, but later an AFP correspondent said the situation was unclear.