4,000 Syrians flee Aleppo as government troops press on

Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press

Beirut — Hundreds of Syrians stood in long lines Sunday, some getting on government buses, to flee the ever shrinking rebel-held enclave of eastern Aleppo as military troops and allied militias continued their push to regain full control of the opposition stronghold.

Syria’s state news agency said at least 4,000 people fled the enclave Sunday. The state TV channel said more than 70,000 of eastern Aleppo’s estimated 275,000 residents have fled in recent days — mostly to government-held western Aleppo districts.

Residents said government airstrikes hit the last remaining bridge that linked eastern and western Aleppo, a largely symbolic strike. They also reported that government and allied troops kept up their bombing of a handful of neighborhoods, which have become the shelter for most of the civilians who chose to remain.

“There is not a building that remains standing,” said Mohammed Khandaqani, a medical administrator who remains in Aleppo, speaking of his neighborhood, al-Maadi, near the old city. He said government troops have advanced there, and others said most of the newly displaced resident left from that area. “This scorched earth policy is truly overwhelming.”

State TV on Sunday showed hundreds of Syrian men gathering, apparently to leave eastern Aleppo while some women were getting on the buses. The images from the exit routes, which have also been broadcast live by the Russian military, have been playing nearly every day since the ground offensive began dislodging opposition fighters bit by bit from eastern Aleppo neighborhood starting from the north.

The swift Russia-backed ground offensive, which began on Nov. 26, followed an intensive aerial bombing campaign that knocked out most of the medical facilities, targeted civil defense and municipal vehicles and blocked roads with rubble. The eastern Aleppo area has also been cut off from outside assistance since July by a government siege.

A state TV broadcaster said insurgents still control around 4 square miles in the city’s east, down from the original 17 square miles they once held.

Rebels captured the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial capital, in 2012. The government’s recapture of the city would mark its greatest victory since the war began in 2011.

On Friday, Russian officials said more than 1,000 rebels have surrendered. Opposition fighters in eastern Aleppo had vowed not to leave the city, after they offered a cease-fire proposal to the government last week, which was largely ignored.

The cease-fire was the clearest sign the rebels were no longer able to hold on to the city, but talks to evacuate the civilians under United Nations monitoring and possibly maintain some opposition presence in the eastern enclave, have failed.

Brig. Gen. Zeid al-Saleh, the head of the security committee in Aleppo city, told state TV channel al-Ikhbariya that Syrian forces, “are working to settle the battle with (the opposition) soon.”