Syrian forces squeeze Aleppo, bring new wave of evacuations
BEIRUT — Nearly two weeks into a crushing blitz, Syrian forces and their allies have taken control of nearly all of what was once an opposition stronghold in eastern Aleppo, touching off a new wave of evacuations Friday and raising concerns about hundreds of men who have disappeared and are feared to have been seized by the government.
A flood of civilians streamed out on foot in the wake of the relentless campaign by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to drive rebels from their rapidly crumbling enclave. They joined tens of thousands who have fled since Nov. 26, seeking shelter from the nonstop bombardment and crippling siege.
"The writing on the wall looks as if eastern Aleppo's battle is virtually over," said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, in an interview with The Associated Press at U.N. headquarters.
The U.N. human rights office expressed deep concern about reports that hundreds of men have vanished after crossing from eastern Aleppo into government-controlled areas.
Relatives reported losing contact with the men, who are between the ages of 30 and 50, after they fled opposition-held areas about a week to 10 days ago, said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. It was not clear whether they were fighters or civilians.
Colville also said the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is also concerned by reports that some civilians trying to flee are being blocked by armed opposition groups and, in some cases, fired upon.
"Civilians are being used as pawns and prevented from leaving," he said at a briefing in Geneva. He estimated there may be about 100,000 civilians in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. They include about 500 medical cases of people in need of urgent evacuation.
Syrian state TV broadcast video of families emerging from the ravaged eastern districts, the enclave that had been held by rebels since 2012.
Government-owned al-Ikhbariya TV showed civilians on foot and at least one bus snaking through the Ballour crossing, saying they came from the Saleheen, Fardous and Sheikh Saeed neighborhoods in the southern part of eastern Aleppo.
On Thursday, Russia announced the Syrian army was suspending combat operations to allow for civilians to leave besieged rebel-held districts, but residents and medics in the neighborhoods said there was no letup in the bombardment.
"Bombing is truly round the clock," said Ziad Mohammed, a lawyer and father of three, who is still in the al-Mashhad neighborhood. "There are no hospitals, the remnants of the dead fill the streets and the wounded have to fend for themselves."
Mohammad, an outspoken government opponent, said he and many of those remaining were bracing for certain death.
"If staying here means dying here, then standing by my principles will have been enough," he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that Aleppo was still under intense fighting. "We saw, I think, a brief pause yesterday, but all too brief. There's been no consistent pause in the fighting that we have seen."
Earlier this week, efforts faltered to evacuate hundreds of wounded despite pleas from medical officials. A hospital administrator in the east said medics have submitted lists of patients who need to be moved out.
"There hasn't been a response yet, and the shelling continues," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Rebel defenses have collapsed in the government offensive and intense bombing.
In a sign of the Assad government's growing confidence about Aleppo, the Foreign Ministry said officials were prepared to resume intra-Syrian talks on its own terms.
The ministry statement, carried on the state-run SANA news agency, did not specify whom the government would recognize as a partner for dialogue, a key sticking point in earlier failed rounds of talks with the opposition.
The government refers to its armed opponents as "terrorists." It said it would agree to return to talks "without preconditions or foreign interference."
Tens of thousands of people have fled to western Aleppo, and those remaining are now cornered in the southern part of the eastern neighborhoods.
Government forces and allied militiamen say they control nearly 90 percent of what was once rebel-held territory — a figure the opposition disputes.
"More than 30 percent of east Aleppo is controlled by us," said Osama Abu Zayd, an adviser to the loose rebel umbrella group known as the Free Syrian Army. Speaking from Turkey, where he is based, he said the Syrian army and Russians were still targeting rebel positions on the front lines.
But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said only seven neighborhoods are entirely under opposition control.
In Russia, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military's General Staff said 10,500 civilians — including 4,015 children — have left eastern Aleppo in the last 24 hours. The number could not be independently confirmed.
The U.N. said about 31,000 people have left, while the Observatory says more than 80,000 people have been displaced.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Germany after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said military experts and diplomats would meet Saturday in Geneva to work out details of the rebels' exit from eastern Aleppo, along with civilians who are willing to leave.
De Mistura called the meeting extremely important because it could result in avoiding "massive destruction" if an evacuation plan is worked out. He said he hopes the meeting will lead to an alternative to the bloodshed that would surely come with the final fighting for the city.
Kerry says he is persisting in efforts to "save the city of Aleppo from being absolutely, completely destroyed."
Speaking to reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, he described Aleppo's catastrophe as the worst "since World War II itself."
He said he hopes the Syrian sides and peace mediators "can find some way to get to the table" and "have a serious discussion about how to end this war."
The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a nonbinding resolution demanding an immediate end to attacks on civilians and all besieged areas in Syria. It also expressed grave concern at the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country and demanded "rapid, safe, sustained, unhindered and unconditional humanitarian access throughout the country for U.N. ... and all humanitarian actors."
In central Syria, Islamic State militants advanced on government positions in the countryside around the historic city of Palmyra, according to the Observatory. It said 49 soldiers were killed in 24 hours of fighting in the desert.
The IS group's Aamaq News Agency distributed video showing what it says were Syrian soldiers fleeing their positions west of Palmyra.
The Syrian government, backed by Russian forces, recaptured Palmyra from IS in March to great fanfare. The militants had destroyed numerous monuments dating back to Roman times while they held the ancient city.