Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has claimed the eastern district of Aleppo has been "liberated" from the opposition. The evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians from the war-ravaged city has begun.
In a video, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad congratulated Syrians on the "liberation" of Aleppo, describing it as "history in the making and worthy of more than the word 'congratulations'."
The video, posted to the president's official social media accounts, described the army's imminent capture of Aleppo as a turning point.
"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," he said in the footage, apparently shot on a phone.
Civilians moved out
His message came as the first group of evacuees left eastern areas of the city that were previously held by opposition rebels, under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.
The first group of civilians and opposition fighters arrived on Thursday in an opposition-held area in nearby Idlib province.
A pair of evacuation convoys brought about 3,000 civilians and over 40 wounded people, including children, out of Aleppo on Thursday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The group said "many more" convoys with buses and ambulances would continue to be needed, ICRC Regional Director Robert Mardini told Reuters news agency.
The Russian military said over 1,000 people had been evacuated in the first convoy and that drones were being used to monitor their progress in order to "prevent provocations."
Several journalists based in eastern Aleppo tweeted as the evacuation unfolded, including Zouhir Al Shimale, who said a ceasefire in the city appeared to be holding.
A Syrian military source told the Agence France-Presse news agency that about 200 rebel fighters were among the arrivals.
A convoy of 13 ambulances with wounded civilians also left the last rebel-held part of the city on Thursday. Later on Thursday, Syrian state TV said a second convoy of 15 buses had left for the countryside.
Up to 50,000 remain trapped
However, late on Thursday, the UN peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Paris that some 50,000 people, including 40,000 civilians, remained trapped in Aleppo, while another 1,500 to 5,000 rebel fighters and their families were also still in the city.
"Our priority is for our UN colleagues to be present with the people (who have been evacuated) and that the fighters be respected under the terms of this deal," de Mistura said at press conference hosted alongside French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Ayrault meanwhile reiterated France's call for "the deployment, as quickly as possible, of UN observers, of all UN personnel who are already on the ground, and who can be deployed in the coming hours."
A UN Security Council meeting is expected to take place in Paris on Friday to examine the deployment of observers and "to ensure there are no abuses, no acts of revenge, and that the civilian population is protected."
'Going to plan'
World Health Organization spokeswoman Elizabeth Hoff said the operation to vacate eastern neighborhoods was "going smoothly."
The Aleppo Media Center, a collective of young Syrian opposition activists, also tweeted videos and images of Thursday's evacuation.
Many areas of eastern Aleppo have been besieged by government forces since July leaving as many as 300,000 civilian trapped, according to the United Nations.
As the Syrian regime's assault on rebels intensified in recent days, thousands of people are believed to have fled the city.
While many Syrians cheered Thursday's evacuation, the New York-based aid agency International Rescue Committee warned in a statement that escaping Aleppo doesn't mean escaping the war.
"After witnessing the ferocity of attacks on civilians in Aleppo, we are very concerned that the sieges and barrel bombs will follow the thousands who arrive in Idlib," the group said.
Also on Thursday, Turkey mooted the possibility of setting up a camp for the latest evacuees on Syrian territory.
Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told a news conference that if a "request" came from the Syrian opposition, then a camp could be set up in Syria.
Turkey, along with Jordan and Iraq, already provides temporary shelter for millions of displaced Syrians.
Government forces made a new advance on Thursday in Sukkari - one of a handful of districts still held by rebels - bring half of the neighborhood under their control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group.
As the evacuations got underway, the United Nations called for a ceasefire across Syria, urging more humanitarian access for aid agencies and a political solution to the conflict.
mm/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)