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Aleppo Evacuation Under Way: Reports

Source: RFE/RL

Reports say an operation to evacuate a rebel-held enclave in the Syrian city of Aleppo is under way. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on December 15 that it was preparing to evacuate 200 wounded people, some in critical condition, as part of a cease-fire deal.

photo by Mehr News Agency

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ambulances and buses crossed from government-controlled territory and arrived in the remaining rebel-held part of Aleppo.

Reuters news agency cited a rescue service spokesman as saying that Syrian government fighters opened fire on a convoy as it prepared to leave the area, wounding at least three people.

"The convoy was shot at by regime forces and we have three injured, one of them from civil defense. They were brought back to besieged areas," Reuters quoted an ambulance service chief, Ahmed Sweid, as telling pro-opposition Orient TV.

Syrian state media reported that 4,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated from eastern districts.

Syria's ally Russia said Syrian authorities guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families who will be evacuated toward the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib.

Russian soldiers will use drones to monitor how they are transported on 20 buses, accompanied by 10 ambulances, through a humanitarian corridor, the Defense Ministry said.

Rebel fighters and civilians had been due to leave eastern Aleppo on December 14, but an earlier truce brokered by Russia and Turkey collapsed.

photo by Mehr News Agency

In other developments, Iranian President Hassan Rohani telephoned his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, to congratulate him on the impending defeat of rebel forces in the battleground city of Aleppo, which Iranians are celebrating as a win over the United States.

"The victory in Aleppo...constitutes a great victory for the Syrian people against terrorists and those who support them," Rohani told Assad on December 14, according to his website.

The call came as hard-liners in Iran cast the Aleppo win as a victory over the United States and as new billboards sprung up around Tehran reading: "The fight against the United States has once again paid off. Aleppo is liberated."

Rohani said Iran would continue to back Assad until he has defeated all his opponents, some of whom have been backed by the United States.

"Iran remains at Syria's side until the final fall of the terrorists," he said. Both Iran and Syria call the rebel groups arrayed against them, including those backed by the West, "terrorists."

While celebrating the "victory" in Aleppo, Rohani called on Assad to allow humanitarian aid to now reach the citizens of Aleppo, and he offered to help arrange aid through the Iranian Red Crescent organization.

The Syrian leader reportedly responded that Iran had stood "on the side of the Syrian people and government in its most difficult moments, and we will never forget it."

Their celebrations came as a top United Nations official said Assad and his allies probably committed war crimes by killing hundreds of civilians in their brutal battle to retake Aleppo.

UN human rights chief Zeid bin Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein said "the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the Syrian government forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constitutes war crimes."

With just a small pocket of rebel resistance left in Syria's largest city, Tehran hard-liners said the offensive demonstrated Iran's growing clout in the region.

"The coalition between Iran, Russia, Syria, and Hizbullah led to the liberation of Aleppo and will next liberate Mosul," said Yahya Safavi, top foreign policy adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Safavi, a former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), neglected to mention that the campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State extremist group receives critical backing from U.S.-led air strikes and advisory forces in Iraq.

Safavi said the Aleppo battle sends a clear message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to take a tougher line with Iran.

"The new American president must accept the reality that Iran is the leading power in the region," Safavi said, according to the IRGC's Sepahnews website.

Iran has not committed its regular army to the Syrian conflict, but the IRGC has played a crucial coordinating role.

Thousands of Iranian volunteers -- many of them motivated by a desire to protect Shi'ite shrines in Syria -- are believed to have fought on the front lines.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, AP, and Reuters

Copyright (c) 2016 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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