MOSCOW – All women and children have left the embattled neighborhoods of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, said a statement by the Russian Center for Syrian Reconciliation on Friday.
The center – an offshoot of the Russian ministry of defense – claimed that the evacuation of vulnerable civilians (women and minors) had been completed, although it acknowledged that combatants remained within the eastern areas of the northern Syrian city.
“The operation of the Russian center for reconciliation on the evacuation of militants and their families from eastern districts of Aleppo has ended,” read the statement.
It added that over 9,500 people had left eastern Aleppo in the operation to evacuate the last opposition-controlled neighborhoods.
“All people who wanted to leave eastern Aleppo did it,” the Russian center said.
The statement added that over 4,500 militants and 337 wounded people had been evacuated in the course of the operation.
Moscow acknowledged that militants and radical opposition groups remained in some areas and were exchanging fire with the pro-government forces.
“Syrian army units continue the liberation of districts in Aleppo, where the most radical militants remain,” the statement said.
A Syrian opposition source seemed to confirm this information to the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
“It can be said that the Syrian army controls all of Aleppo. Right now it is finishing off the remaining combatants in some areas,” he told the agency.
On the other hand, NGOs in the area said the evacuation of civilians and fighters was halted on Friday amid reports of renewed violence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), charged with supervising the evacuation operation from eastern Aleppo, were forced to abandon the area.
“Regretfully, the operation was put on hold. We urge the parties to ensure it can be relaunched and proceed in the right conditions,” said Robert Mardini, regional director of the ICRC in the Middle East, on Twitter.
Elizabeth Hoff, a WHO representative in Aleppo, said via telephone that the evacuation operation had been aborted and her organization and the ICRC were forced to leave with their ambulances and buses.
She said they were not given any explanation for the sudden stop.
A United Kingdom-based war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that a bus convoy carrying evacuees was forced to turn around at a government-controlled checkpoint and return to the besieged eastern districts.
The SOHR said that the convoy had been stopped by pro-government militias in the al-Hamdaniya neighborhood (southwestern Aleppo) and forced to return to the Tel Zarazir district, which is still under the control of insurgents.
According to the SOHR, Shiite militias originating from the towns of Fu’ah and Kafriya, both located in neighboring Idlib province, stalled the evacuation operation in protest for what they considered violations of the ceasefire deal.
Fu’ah and Kafriya are being currently besieged and encircled by jihadist fighters belonging to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant (formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida).
The SOHR said that pro-government troops halted the evacuation of Aleppo because the sick and wounded of these two majority-Shiite towns had not yet been evacuated, which was a crucial part of the Aleppo ceasefire agreement and a condition pushed by Iran (a largely Shiite country), who is allied with the Damascus regime.
Syrian authorities and opposition groups have accused each other of violating the deal and interrupting the evacuation operations.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said that there were still many civilians left in the eastern districts of Aleppo.
“We know there are still many people who want to leave,” Cavosoglu said during a press conference in Ankara.
He confirmed the SOHR’s version of events, saying that Shiite armed groups had halted the evacuation process as a protest against the situation in Fu’ah and Kafriya.
Cavosoglu said Turkey was making “huge” diplomatic efforts to reactivate the ceasefire.