Syrian army retakes full control of Aleppo: statement

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army said it had retaken Aleppo completely and brought “security and safety” back to the city, as the last group of rebel fighters were evacuated on Thursday.

The evacuation of the rebels, who had been holed up in a small, battered enclave in Aleppo, puts the city entirely under the control of the army and its allies after years of fighting, state television said.

The final phase of the evacuation ended when a convoy carrying nearly 150 people, including fighters and members of their families, departed toward rebel-held areas outside the city, it said.

Broadcasting live, state media showed footage of a convoy crossing from the Ramousah highway junction in south Aleppo to al-Rashideen in the countryside just southwest of the city.

In parallel, two buses carrying people from the pro-government villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebels in Idlib, arrived in government-held Aleppo, state TV said.

Government forces had insisted the two villages must be included in the deal to bring people out of Aleppo.

Under a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, convoys of buses and cars have shuttled thousands of civilians and fighters out of Aleppo’s last rebel-held pocket toward opposition areas outside the city since late last week.

The Syrian army announced in a statement on Thursday “the return of safety and security to the city of Aleppo”.

“This victory constitutes an important turning point,” it said.

In the western part of the city, held throughout the war by the government, there was celebratory gunfire, fireworks, and street parties on Thursday night, witnesses told Reuters.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is backed by Russian air power and Shi’ite militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Iraq’s Harakat al-Nujaba. The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

For four years, the city was split between a rebel-held east and government-held west. During the summer, the army and allied forces besieged the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.

Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Catherine Evans