The evacuation of eastern Aleppo has been completed, according to state media. Within minutes of the news, President Bashar al-Assad's military said it had retaken the war-torn city.
The Syrian army said on Thursday the evacuation brings "the return of security to Aleppo," emphasizing that it had also eradicated the last of the rebel fighters. The city had been divided between government and rebel forces since 2012. Syrian state TV said the army was preparing a statement declaring "victory in Aleppo."
Syrian state TV reported the last convoy had left east Aleppo. "The last four buses carrying terrorists and their families arrived in Ramussa," said the TV channel. The Syrian government refers to rebels as terrorists. Ramussa is a government-controlled district south of Aleppo. An official with the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham confirmed the convoy departed "the rebel-controlled area."
Approximately 34,000 people have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo during the past week after rebel fighters agreed to cede the city to Syria's military forces.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is aiding the evacuation, said dozens of buses and smaller vehicles were expected to transport rebel fighters and civilians out of the city on Thursday, according to Ingy Sedky, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Syria.
"We expect today to be the last convoys, the operation will continue all day long and during the night," she said. "If it goes smoothly the evacuation will end tonight."
The sick and critically wounded were among those who had been evacuated already, according to the ICRC.
Some 400 vehicles, including trucks and cars, arrived overnight in Khan al-Assal, the staging ground where evacuees from Aleppo arrive after leaving the city, according to Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers who are coordinating the evacuations.
Jan Egeland, who chairs the UN taskforce for humanitarian access in Syria, hailed the evacuation, saying it amounted to lives being saved in eastern Aleppo.
"This operation saved a lot of lives, means the end of the battle proved to be less cruel than it could have been," Egeland said.
Since government forces laid siege to Aleppo, an estimated 31,000 people have been killed in the Syrian city, according to independent monitors.
UN envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura hinted that the evacuation may have only postponed the onslaught against rebels. "Many of them have gone to Idlib, which could be the next Aleppo," de Mistura said.
A slow process
One rebel official said a heavy snowstorm in northern Syria and the sheer numbers of civilians still remaining were among the factors that slowed down the evacuation process.
"The numbers of civilians, their cars alongside and of course the weather all are making the evacuation slow," said Munir al-Sayal, head of the political wing of the Ahrar al Sham rebel group.
Most of the evacuees have headed for territory to the west of the city still under the control of Syrian rebels, who are suffering their biggest defeat in more than five years of civil war after agreeing to withdraw from Aleppo.
The last evacuees are believed to be fighters and their families - more than 4,000 of them left the city overnight.
President Bashar al-Assad's government is waiting for the end of the evacuations so it can declare the completion of the offensive to recapture what had long been a rebel stronghold. Assad called regaining control of Aleppo a victory for his Russian and Iranian allies as much as for his own country.
More than 300,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since the conflict erupted in 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters calling for Assad to step down.
ls,bik/sms (Reuters, AFP)