Aleppo battle: Syrian city 'back under government control'
The Syrian army says it has retaken control of the besieged city of Aleppo, following the evacuation of the last group of rebel fighters.
A UN official said earlier that more than 34,000 civilians and rebels had been removed since last Thursday.
The evacuees have been taken to rebel-held territory in the countryside west of Aleppo and in Idlib province.
This is the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against him began in 2011.
The evacuation of the opposition-held part of eastern Aleppo was part of a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.
In return, residents of the government-controlled towns of Foah and Kefraya in Idlib province, besieged by rebels, would also be removed.
Heavy snow, strong winds and the poor state of vehicles had slowed the evacuation, Red Cross officials said. Thousands of people were forced to wait for hours in sub-zero temperatures with little food or drink.
In a statement on Syrian TV, the army announced the “return of security to Aleppo”.
“This victory represents a strategic change and a turning point in the war against terrorism on the one hand and a crushing blow to the terrorists’ project and their supporters on the other hand,” it said. The government usually refers to the rebels as “terrorists”.
The statement said the victory was a further incentive for the army to carry on fighting to “eradicate terrorism and restore security and stability to every span on the homeland”.
Ahmed Qorra Ali, part of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, told AFP that “the last convoy has left the rebel-controlled area”.
Aleppo was once Syria’s largest city and its commercial and industrial hub before the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011.
For much of the past four years it was divided roughly in two, with the government controlling the western half and rebels the east.
Troops finally broke the deadlock this year with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes, reinstating a siege on the east in early September.
After breaking through the rebels’ defensive lines in mid-November, they quickly advanced and had seized all but 2.6 sq km (1 sq mile) by the time a ceasefire was brokered.
Earlier, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that its warplanes had carried out 18,800 sorties since launching an air campaign against Mr Assad’s opponents in September 2015.
In total, they had “liquidated 725 training camps, 405 weapon factories and workshops, 1,500 pieces of terrorist equipment, and 35,000 fighters”, he said.
Human rights groups have accused the Russian and Syrian air forces of committing war crimes in Aleppo, alleging that they killed hundreds of civilians this September and October alone, deliberately targeted medical facilities, and used indiscriminate weapons such as cluster and incendiary munitions.