Thousands Flee Aleppo Onslaught as Battle Reaches Climax

ALEPPO, Syria/ANKARA (Reuters) -
Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Smoke rises as seen from a government-held area of Aleppo, Syria, Monday. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

Thousands of people fled the front lines of fighting in Aleppo on Tuesday as the Syrian military advanced on the final pocket of rebel resistance, and a senior Turkish official said Russia and Turkey would meet to try to set up an evacuation corridor.

The rout of rebels from more than half of their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of civilians and terrorists in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity.”

The U.N. human rights office said it had reports of abuses, including that the army and allied Iraqi militiamen summarily killed at least 82 civilians in captured city districts.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. office. “There could be many more.”

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

Colville described the rebel-held area as “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometer, saying its capture was imminent.

Turkish and Russian officials will meet on Wednesday to discuss a possible ceasefire and the opening of a corridor, the Turkish official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

But international efforts to seek a negotiated settlement to end fighting in Aleppo have shown no signs of a breakthrough, with Russia and the United States exchanging recriminations over hitches in ceasefire talks.

The spokesman for the civil defense force in the former rebel area of Aleppo said rebels now controlled an area of less than three sq. km. “The situation is very, very bad. The civil defense has stopped operating in the city,” he told Reuters.

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels in Aleppo would mean the end of the rebellion in the city, Syria’s largest, since the outbreak of war after mass protests in 2011, but it is unclear if such a deal can be struck by world powers.

By finally dousing the last embers of resistance burning in Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military coalition of the army, Russian air power and Iran-backed militias will have delivered him his biggest battlefield victory of the war.

However, while the rebels, including groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, as well as jihadist groups that the West does not support, will suffer a crushing defeat in Aleppo, the war will be far from over.

A daily bulletin issued by the Russian Defense Ministry’s “reconciliation center” from the Hmeimin airbase used by its warplanes, reported that more than 8,000 civilians, more than half of them children, had left east Aleppo in 24 hours.

State media broadcast footage of a tide of hundreds of refugees walking along a ravaged street, wearing thick clothes against the rain and cold, many with hoods or hats pulled tight around their faces, and hauling sacks or bags of belongings.

One man pushed a bicycle loaded with bags, another family pulled a cart on which sat an elderly woman. Another man carried on his back a small girl wearing a pink hat.

At the same time, a correspondent from a pro-Damascus television station spoke to camera from a part of Aleppo held by the government, standing in a tidy street with flowing traffic. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. “There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

“Last night people slept in the streets and in buildings where every flat has several families crowded in,” he added.

The International Committee for the Red Cross appealed for all sides to spare civilian lives. “As the battle reaches new peaks and the area is plunged into chaos thousands with no part in the violence have literally nowhere safe to run,” it said.