Syrian rebels say Aleppo truce deal struck, to take effect shortly

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said a ceasefire with government forces in Aleppo, agreed after talks between insurgents and Damascus’s ally Russia, was to begin late on Tuesday and would include the evacuation of combatants and civilians.

People carry belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

The deal, acknowledged by Russia and Syria, signals Damascus’s biggest victory over insurgents fighting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad in nearly six years of civil war, driving them from their last major urban stronghold.

A rebel official told Reuters that Moscow and insurgent factions agreed in their talks to a halt to air strikes, which he said took effect early on Tuesday.

“There was negotiation with the Russians last night ... the first thing (agreed) was that (aerial) bombardments should stop today, so today the bombardment stopped in the morning, but clashes continued,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group said.

“There’s (currently) a cessation of bombardments. Now ... a ceasefire is being discussed, so tonight ... a ceasefire should happen.”

He said Russia, Turkey, which supports rebels, the United Nations and insurgent groups were involved in negotiations.

A second rebel official, from the Jabha Shamiya group, said the first group of people were due to leave the remaining eastern, rebel-held pockets of Aleppo in the coming hours.

The official said the wounded would probably leave first, and that the majority of the estimated 50,000 people still in eastern Aleppo would also depart.

A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters for the rebel-controlled western Aleppo countryside would start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday. The source said fighters’ families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.

The Syrian army and its allies have driven rebels out of most of the areas of Aleppo they held for years in the space of just weeks, aided by Russian air strikes and the military support of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias.

Reporting by John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Laila Bassam in Aleppo; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich