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Thousands flee Aleppo onslaught as battle reaches climax

ALEPPO/ ANKARA: Thousands of civilians 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 insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”.

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The UN 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 told Reuters, who declined to be identified.

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.

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The spokesman for the civil defence 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 defence 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 until 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.

“FLEEING IN PANIC”

Aleppo’s loss will leave the rebels without a significant presence in any of Syria’s main cities, but they still hold much of the countryside west of Aleppo and the province of Idlib, also in northwest Syria.

Islamic State also has a big presence in Syria and has advanced in recent days, taking the desert city of Palmyra.

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The army and its allies had taken full control over all the Aleppo districts abandoned by rebels during their retreat in the city, a Syrian military source said on Tuesday.

After days of intense bombardment of rebel-held areas, the rate of shelling and air strikes dropped considerably late on Monday and through the night as the weather deteriorated, a Reuters reporter in the city said.

However, rocket fire pounded rebel-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, reported. Rebels and government forces still fought at points around the reduced enclave, the Observatory said.

“Artillery shelling is continuing but because of the weather the aerial bombing has stopped. Many of the families and children have not left for areas under the control of the regime because their fathers are from the rebels,” said Abu Ibrahim, a resident of Aleppo in a text message.

Colville said he feared retribution. “In all, as of yesterday evening we have received reports of pro-government forces killing least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, in four different neighborhoods – Bustan al-Qasr, al-Fardous, Al-Kalasah and al-Saliheen,” Colville told a news briefing, naming the Iraqi armed group Harakat al-Nujaba as reportedly involved in the killings.

The military official said the rebels were fleeing “in a state of panic”, but a Turkish-based official with the Jabha Shamiya insurgent group in Aleppo said on Monday night that they had established a new frontline along the river.

Celebrations on the government side of the divided city lasted into Monday night, with fighters shooting rounds into the sky in triumph.

TIDE OF REFUGEES

A daily bulletin issued by the Russian Defence 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 television 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.

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