The warring sides in Syria confirmed on Thursday that the evacuation of rebel fighters and thousands of civilians from the last sliver of the besieged eastern city of Aleppo is imminent, with a Syrian army official saying all is ready for them to leave "at any moment".
Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said overnight negotiations had reinforced a ceasefire deal to allow the rebels and civilians to leave the besieged last rebel holdout in Aleppo.
The evacuations were back on track after a ceasefire deal, mediated by Ankara and Moscow, unravelled amid fighting on Wednesday. Shiite Hezbollah militiamen are fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The handover of Aleppo’s remaining opposition-run neighbourhoods to government control would be a turning point in Syria’s civil war, allowing Assad control of most of the country’s urban centres.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting that scuttled Wednesday’s truce stopped in the city around 4am on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen broadcast live from the Ramouseh crossing point on the southern edge of Aleppo, where ambulances belonging to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were on hand, parked and waiting to evacuate the wounded and sick Syrians. A green-coloured government bus was also seen in the footage.
The evacuation, which is part of an agreement between rebels and the Syrian government for the pull-out from opposition-held neighbourhoods of fighters and civilians, is effectively Aleppo’s surrender to the government.
The rebels have held to the eastern part of the city for four years but their enclave rapidly evaporated in the past days and weeks in the face of a fierce Syrian government onslaught.
The Russian military, a staunch Assad ally, said 20 buses and 10 ambulances would take the rebels to the rebel-held areas in the province of Idlib on Thursday.
The military’s Centre for Reconciliation said it was preparing for the rebels exit together with the Syrian government and the government in Damascus had given security guarantees to all rebels willing to leave Aleppo. The Russian military was monitoring the situation using drones, it said.
A previous attempt to arrange a rebel withdrawal failed on Wednesday when a ceasefire deal between the rebels and the government collapsed, with both sides blaming each other for its failure.
The evacuation was to have begun at dawn on Wednesday, but quickly derailed, descending into terrifying violence.
Residents said government buses arrived in the pre-dawn hours at agreed upon meeting points, where the wounded were first in line to be evacuated after surviving weeks of intense fighting amid destroyed medical facilities and depleted supplies.
But they were turned away by Shiite pro-government militias manning the checkpoints.
Then violence erupted: shelling and then air strikes. The rebels retaliated, at one point shelling the pro-government villages of Foua and Kfraya in Idlib and detonating a car bomb in a frontline area.
Residents, activists and medical staff described mayhem as volleys of shells rained down on the area where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped alongside rebels in gutted apartment buildings and other shelters.
On Thursday, a Syrian army official said all preparations are ready for the evacuations.
"The evacuations will begin at any moment," he said.