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Aleppo evacuation: 4,000 fighters have left rebel enclave, says monitor

Operation could be over by Thursday night, says ICRC, as Moscow releases numbers on fighters it has killed in air raids

Syrian rebels being evacuated from Aleppo drive through a rebel-held territory near Rashidin on December 22, 2016 (AFP)

About 4,000 fighters are among 34,000 people evacuated from eastern Aleppo in the past week, the regional head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday as the operation to clear people out of the rebel enclave appeared to be nearing completion.

Robert Mardini, the regional head of the ICRC, posted on Twitter that monitors had escorted about 4,000 fighters and 34,000 people in total from eastern Aleppo.

He said hundreds of people had also been escorted out of Foua and Kefraya, the Shia-majority villages besieged by rebels in Idlib which are also being evacuated as part of the agreement between the Syrian government and its allies and rebels.

Syrians walk in a snow-covered street in the town of Maaret al-Numan, in the northern province of Idlib (Thursday)

The evacuation of eastern Aleppo could be completed by Thursday night despite winter weather hampering the operation, according to the ICRC which has led the convoy of buses and ambulances with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

"We expect today to be the last convoys, the operation will continue all day long and during the night. If it goes smoothly the evacuation will end tonight," said Ingy Sedky, the ICRC's spokeswoman in Syria.

Vehicles were leaving eastern Aleppo on Thursday morning after an evacuation overnight monitored by the United Nations and the ICRC, a UN official in Syria said on Thursday.

READ MORE: Welcome to Idlib, 'the next Aleppo'

Snow, bad weather and the poor condition of some cars appeared to have slowed the operation on Wednesday, where only a small number of rebels are still waiting to leave under an agreement with the Syrian government.

"The evacuation is still ongoing, monitors are still on site. About 300 private vehicles left overnight and this morning," the UN official told the Reuters news agency.

A rebel contact inside Aleppo said that the "evacuation operation is continuing and has not ended".

Ahmed Kara Ali, a spokesman for the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, told Reuters "large numbers" were left but that it was difficult to estimate how many remained, beyond it being in the thousands.

Among those able to make the journey west to rebel-held Idlib province on Thursday morning was Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US journalist who had been trapped in the besieged enclave for months.

"We are home, we are out of the besieged territories of Aleppo," Kareem told Middle East Eye.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had appeared close to taking back control of Aleppo on Wednesday, but UN and rebel officials denied that an operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the city had been completed.

In Geneva, ICRC spokeswoman Krista Armstrong told Reuters that the evacuation "will still take quite some time, possibly most of today".

The civilians have been taken mainly to opposition-held western rural Aleppo and Idlib province. The last evacuees are believed to be fighters and their families.

At least 435 sick and wounded people have been medically evacuated, including dozens of children who require treatment mainly for trauma injuries, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday. The most critical cases were being taken to Turkey.

Meanwhile in Moscow, defence minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that the country's air force has killed 35,000 fighters in Syria since the start of its air campaign over Syria in September 2015.

During that time, Shoigu said, Russian warplanes had 71,000 strikes and "liquidated 725 training camps, 405 weapon factories and workshops, 1,500 pieces of terrorist equipment, and 35,000 fighters, including 204 field commanders," in comments reported by the AFP news agency.