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Bashar al-Assad hails 'liberation' of Aleppo as rebel fighters driven out

Syrian president says defeat of rebels was 'history in the making', as Russia declares all fighters have left city
Children watch as buses ferry people out of eastern Aleppo on 15 December (AFP)

The Syrian president hailed the "liberation" of Aleppo and Russia's military declared all militants had been "driven out" of east Aleppo, as convoys of ambulances and buses ferried hundreds of rebels and civilians to other parts of Syria.

Bashar al-Assad congratulated Syrians on the city's "liberation", saying it was "history in the making and worthy of more than the word 'congratulations'."

"What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today, it started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria," Assad said.

"The people of Aleppo made history with their steadfastness, bravery and sacrifice. And every Syrian stood with the people of Aleppo and their homeland.

"I think that after the liberation of Aleppo we'll talk about the situation as... before the liberation of Aleppo and after the liberation of Aleppo."

Russian Lieutenant General Viktor Poznikhir, meanwhile, told the Tass news agency that the Syrian army was close to ending its operations in the city and that about 1,000 rebels left the city today under a Russia-Turkey ceasefire and evacuation deal.

"The militants have been driven out of all the quarters that remained under their control as a result of the Syrian troops’ offensive," Poznikhir said.

"More than 1,000 people have been evacuated from the Salah al-Din quarter to the settlement of al-Rashidin via a humanitarian corridor," he said.

"As many as 20 passenger buses were provided by the Syrian authorities and 10 ambulances were provided by the Red Crescent for that."

Poznikhir said that more than 900 "terrorists" had been killed during weeks of operations against rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. He did not discuss the number of civilians who also died in heavy shelling and air attacks in residential areas.

Russian soldiers led the convoy of 1,000 civilians and rebels out of Aleppo, as the Russian and Turkish deal to end fighting in the Syrian city gathered pace after a day of broken promises and more violence.

Zouhir al-Shimale, a journalist in the city, said Syrian government buses had arrived in his area in the early hours of Thursday and were loading wounded civilians. Hours later, state TV said many had left rebel-held areas.
"The green buses have just arrived and the evacuation process has recommenced," he said. "The process is going really smoothly right now but it was very tense in the beginning.

"They evacuated the injured people and now they are taking the families of the severely injured people."

A Turkish official said on Thursday that the evacuation of the entire remaining population of eastern Aleppo could take two or three days.

A slow-moving convoy of about two dozen vehicles left al-Amiriyah district and crossed into government-held Ramoussa on the way to rebel-held territory in the west of Aleppo province, AFP said.

Members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent were assisting the evacuation, while the World Health Organisation said there had been no checks on the identities of anyone leaving, "as far as we can see". 

A Russian soldier escorts a bus out of east Aleppo (Reuters)

According to Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser, Russia said the evacuation would be "swift" and promised that no harm would come to anyone who was leaving.

"Russia... confirmed that Russians would be monitoring and that this is a swift, unbureaucratic, non-intrusive evacuation and no harm will meet these who are evacuated," he said.

Egeland said Russia had also promised there would be a pause in fighting in Syria's Idlib province, where many Aleppans would be sent.

Reuters reported that President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian soldiers to lead rebels towards Idlib.

At the same time, Syrian state media reported that a fleet of trucks and ambulances were headed to the villages of Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels, to evacuate wounded and families.

On Wednesday, rebels attributed the hold-up of the ceasefire and evacuation to demands by Iran-backed militias that the wounded in Foua and Kefraya should also be taken to government areas.