herald

Friday 20 January 2017

Aleppo 'a massacre', says US as 1,000 flee carnage

Syrians get ready to leave Aleppo on buses Picture: Reuters
Syrians get ready to leave Aleppo on buses Picture: Reuters

US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo, where thousands were evacuated from the last rebel bastion in a city besieged for years.

Kerry, speaking at a news briefing, said the United States was seeking an immediate, verifiable, and durable cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, and said it appeared that air strikes and shelling had stopped and that convoys were moving out.

But there were also reports that a convoy of injured people had been fired on by Syrian government forces and their allies, Kerry said.

Activists and residents inside the remaining rebel enclave said this week that pro-government militias had summarily executed dozens of civilians.

"There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the indiscriminate and savage brutality against civilians shown by the regime and by its Russian and Iranian allies over the past few weeks, or indeed over the past five years," Kerry said.

"We are seeing the unleashing of a sectarian passion.

"The Assad regime is actually carrying out nothing short of a massacre."

Meanwhile, an operation to evacuate thousands of civilians and fighters from the last rebel bastion in Aleppo began yesterday, part of a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A convoy of ambulances and buses with nearly 1,000 people aboard drove out of the devastated rebel-held area of Aleppo, which was besieged and bombarded for months by Syrian government forces, a Reuters reporter on the scene said.

Women cried out in celebration as the buses passed through a government-held area, and some waved the Syrian flag. Assad said in a video statement the taking of Aleppo was a historic moment.

Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in the rebel zone, said most people were happy to leave safely, but said some are angry to be leaving "their city".

Earlier, ambulances trying to evacuate people came under fire from pro-government fighters, who injured three people, a rescue service spokesman said.

Evacuation

"Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick and children, including orphans," said UN adviser Jan Egeland.

The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war which has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

Turkey is considering establishing a camp in Syria for civilians being evacuated from Aleppo and the number of people brought out of the city could reach 100,000, Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said.

A senior Russian general, Viktor Poznikhir, said the Syrian army had almost finished its operations in Aleppo but the war is far from over, with insurgents retaining their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist IS group holding swathes of the east and recapturing Palmyra this week.

The Red Cross said close to 1,000 civilians and 26 wounded, including several children, were evacuated, a total it expected to double by day's end.

Rebels and their families would be taken towards Idlib, a city in north-western Syria which is outside government control, Russia said.

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