As Assad's Forces Capture Aleppo, Kerry Works to Save City From 'Absolute Destruction'

Some 50,000 Syrians said fleeing the embattled city, as U.S. and Russian military experts and diplomats are meeting in Geneva to work out details of the rebels' retreat.

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Syrian civilians arrive at a checkpoint manned by pro-government forces, at the al-Hawoz street roundabout, after leaving Aleppo's eastern neighborhoods on December 10, 2016.
Syrian civilians arrive at a checkpoint manned by pro-government forces, at the al-Hawoz street roundabout, after leaving Aleppo's eastern neighborhoods on December 10, 2016. Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP

Some 50,000 civilians have fled eastern Aleppo over the past two days in a "constant stream," Russia said Saturday, as Syrian government forces close in on the last pocket of opposition control in the northern city.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European and Arab diplomats were meeting members of Syria's opposition in Paris on Saturday. Kerry said he is working to ensure their safety and to save Aleppo "from being absolutely, completely destroyed."

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that Syrian troops have suspended their offensive to allow for the evacuation of civilians, but the activist-run Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says heavy clashes are still underway.

Konashenkov said that on Saturday alone more than 20,000 civilians left rebel-controlled Aleppo districts through humanitarian corridors. The military is live streaming images from drones showing the exit.

Backed by Russia and other allies, Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have driven the rebels from nearly all of eastern Aleppo, which was captured by the opposition in 2012.

The UN human rights office has expressed concern about reports that hundreds of men have vanished after crossing from eastern Aleppo into government-controlled areas.

U.S. and Russian military experts and diplomats are meeting in Geneva on Saturday to work out details of the rebels' exit from eastern Aleppo.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rdL) and France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (5thL) attend a meeting on Syria, on December 10, 2016 in Paris. Credit: THIBAULT CAMUS/AFP

The Russian military's Center for Reconciliation in Syria said Russian sappers have continued defusing mines in the city, clearing 8 hectares (about 20 acres) since Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to show "a little grace" when American and Russian officials meet in Geneva later on Saturday to try to reach a deal enabling civilians and fighters to leave the besieged city of Aleppo.

"Fighters ... don't trust that if they agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that it will save Aleppo and they will be unharmed and free to move where they are not immediately attacked," Kerry told reporters in Paris after a meeting of countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syrian pro-government forces hold Syrian flags bearing the portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad as they patrol Aleppo's Bab al-Nairab neighborhood on December 10, 2016Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP

"Russia and Assad have a moment where they are in a dominant position to show a little grace," he said, adding that the talks in Geneva were aimed at finding a possible way of trying to save lives."

The advances mean the government appears closer to victory than at any point since 2011 protests against Assad evolved into armed rebellion. The war has killed more than 300,000 people and made more than 11 million homeless.

A win for Assad in Aleppo looks close, but fighting still raged on Saturday.

Russian warplanes and Syrian artillery bombarded rebel-held districts, and rebels responded with shelling of government-controlled areas as gunfire rang out, a Reuters correspondent in Aleppo said.

A screenshot from a video uploaded by the Russian defense ministry to its website, purporting to show drone footage of civilians fleeing the city of Aleppo, Syria.

Russia and Syria said on Friday they had reduced military operations to allow civilians to leave.

But rebels say their counter attacks are what have halted government advances.

Syrian residents fleeing the violence arrive at a checkpoint manned by pro-government forces in the village of Aziza on the outskirts of Aleppo, December 9, 2016.Credit: George Ourfalian, AFP

"There's no advance by the regime. They (rebels) have stopped them several times," Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group told Reuters.

The Syrian army said it had sent reinforcements to Palmyra more than 200 kms (130 miles) away to stave off a fierce attack by Islamic State militants, who advanced to the city's outskirts. A rebel commander in the Aleppo-based Jaish al-Mujahideen group said the ISIS offensive had forced the government to divert troops from Aleppo - a possible explanation for the slowed advance there and heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.

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