The evacuation of the Syrian city of Aleppo could be coming to a close soon, multiple officials and a rebel group said, although they disagreed on the time frame and the number of evacuees.
A group of buses scheduled to evacuate the last civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo has been delayed, Syrian state-run media said, blaming infighting among rebel factions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted Tuesday that 37,500 people had been evacuated from the war-torn city so far, adding that “all evacuations are intended to be finished by tomorrow.”
Both the Syrian regime and a key rebel group had said earlier they expected the evacuations to be completed Tuesday.
The regime is on the verge of retaking Aleppo from rebel groups who have controlled parts of the city since 2012. The government has made significant territorial gains after its forces, backed by airstrikes, entered rebel-held areas in late November.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the evacuation would conclude in the coming days.
However, the International Committee of the Red Cross has put the number of evacuees since Thursday at 25,000 and said the operation is “still ongoing.”
A further 750 people have so far been evacuated from the largely Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in Syria’s mainly rebel-held Idlib province as part of the same deal, the ICRC said.
Too little, too late for Aleppo’s dead
It is unclear how many civilians and rebels are trapped in eastern Aleppo. But Syrian state-run Ekhbariya TV reported the Syrian army has used loudspeakers to urge remaining rebels to leave the area, warning it intends to enter the enclave in the coming hours to “remove remnants of terrorism.”
Ekhbariya TV also reported that 51 buses had entered the city Tuesday to transport a number of rebels and their families to Idlib province.
Regime on verge of retaking Aleppo
Osama Abo Zaid, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a rebel alliance backed by Turkey, said he expected the evacuation to conclude Tuesday, with a convoy of about 100 buses due to leave the city in addition to at least 300 private cars.
“A few civilians are afraid to leave Aleppo and stay in tents in the cold and decided to stay in their houses,” Zaid said. He said some stealing and intimidation was taking place during the evacuation.
He added, “The forced evacuation in Aleppo will end today, and still there will be around 1,300 people to be evacuated from Kafraya and Fuaa simultaneous with evacuating 1,500 people from Madaya and Zabadani, per the agreement, as 2,700 people have been evacuated from Kafraya and Fuaa so far.”
Turkey and Russia helped broker the ceasefire deal that made the recent evacuations possible. On Tuesday, Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, met with Russia’s Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow to discuss the Syrian conflict.
The joint efforts have been successful in facilitating the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo and the departure of militants, Zarif said Tuesday.
“We, you and Turkey have been able in the past five days to help evacuate innocent civilians from Aleppo as well as (facilitate) the terrorist groups to leave the city,” Zarif told Lavrov ahead of the trilateral talks.
The three countries’ defense ministers met in the Russian capital as well, announcing the Moscow Declaration, which the Russian Defense Ministry called an “extremely important document” that will “promote the settlement of the Syrian crisis.”
“We will be able to act as the guarantors of further settlement and implementation of the Syria ceasefire agreement,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said during the meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
The meetings came on the heels of Monday night’s assassination of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov in the Turkish capital of Ankara.
Russia: No military solution in Syria
Lavrov welcomed the “efforts in eastern Aleppo” and recognized “the important role” of the United Nations.
“It has become our opinion there is no military solution to Syrian crisis,” the Russian foreign minister said at a press conference following the meeting.
“We welcome the partial evacuation of opposition from a number of locations in Syria and advocate a successful and safe completion of this process,” he continued.
He said the three countries would work toward “ending hostilities” and “providing an environment for an efficient and conclusive political process in Syria.”
The Syrian government has authorized the United Nations to send an additional 20 staff members to eastern Aleppo, where they will monitor the ongoing evacuation, a UN spokesman said Tuesday.
The move comes after the UN Security Council voted unanimously Monday to redeploy UN staff to Aleppo to monitor and report on the evacuation of civilians.
The resolution stressed “the importance to ensure the voluntary, safe and dignified passage of all civilians from the eastern districts of AIeppo or other areas, under the monitoring of and coordination by the United Nations and other relevant institutions, to a destination of their choice.”
Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old girl who has captured the world’s attention with her tweets from Aleppo, was evacuated to Turkey with her family Monday.
Her mother, Fatemah, tweeted Tuesday: “I can’t & we can’t all be happy until all the remaining people who want to leave are evacuated from East Aleppo.”