A years-long siege that had reduced much of Syria’s largest city to rubble came to an apparent end Tuesday when the last remaining rebels, boxed into a shrinking urban stronghold, agreed to leave Aleppo and hand it over to government forces.
The collapse of the rebel forces in Aleppo, announced by Russian officials and an opposition spokesman, came amid reports of horrific atrocities. It would mark the most significant victory yet by Syrian President Bashar Assad in his five-year civil war – a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and forced millions from their homes.
Even as the rebels were gathering to depart the city on Wednesday morning, reports emerged that at least 82 civilians had been killed by Syrian forces who entered homes and killed those inside, then shot those who tried to flee, according to the United Nations.
“We received further deeply disturbing reports that numerous bodies were lying in the streets but residents were unable to retrieve them due to the intense bombardment, and their fear of being shot on sight,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in a press briefing from Geneva.
Colville said the atrocities took place in four neighborhoods of the rebels’ dwindling enclave in eastern Aleppo, which had shrunk to little more than one square mile, and that the victims included at least 11 women and 13 children.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. In a phone interview, Colville said his office had “cross-checked the information as far as one can in this chaotic mayhem. We would love to be wrong on this occasion, but we don’t think we are.”
News of the apparent end to the siege came from the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, in a Security Council session in which he announced, with diplomatic understatement: “Military operations in eastern Aleppo have concluded.”
“The Syrian government has regained control of … eastern Aleppo, so the stage of practical humanitarian actions begins,” continued Churkin, according to a report from the state-controlled, English-language broadcaster Russia Today. He added there was an arrangement for fighters to leave the city.
A cease-fire had begun as a prelude to the fighters' exit Wednesday morning, according to Zakaria Malahifji, the political spokesman for the opposition’s Fastaqim Kama Umert, one of a group of factions fighting in Aleppo.
Crucially, activists said fighters would be able to leave with their personal weapons - a major stumbling block that the Russians had initially rejected, Malahifji said.
Activists on both sides reported silence on the front lines, and the government confirmed that arrangements were being made for the withdrawal.
Aleppo, a U.N. World Heritage site known for its magnificent hilltop citadel, its narrow, winding streets and bustling souks, had long been divided between the rebel-held east side and the government-held west.
Residents in western Aleppo celebrated the takeover, cheering, shooting guns in the air and honking horns in convoys of cars threading their way through crowded streets, according to video broadcast by government-affiliated news channels and activists.
Groups of men chanted, “God salute the army… with heart and soul we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar,” a reference to Assad.
Some government activists, however, expressed anger on social media that rebels would be allowed to leave without punishment.
The government’s Ministry of Reconciliation’s representative in Aleppo, Fadi Ismail, said in a statement to pro-government media that militants would leave on a road heading out of the city’s southwestern flank, according to a pro-government online news site.
Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese news channel close to the Syrian government, said the exodus would begin at 5 a.m.
Churkin, in a statement to the Reuters news agency, said that although the fighters would have to leave, civilians could stay and go to “safe places.”
“Nobody is going to harm civilians,” he said.
The government assault was conducted with substantial assistance from Russian air power, and had already displaced tens of thousands of people from the rebels’ pocket. They have gone to government-held areas, including a refugee center in Jibreen, a district on the outskirts of Aleppo.
For the previous few days, amid the constant threat of shelling and an accelerating onslaught by security forces, the estimated 50,000 people inside the rebel blockade had fled from district to district in a desperate retreat.
In the Security Council meeting, which came after the reports of killings and other atrocities, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. insisted there was no wrongdoing. He called the reports “the zenith of hypocrisy.”
One pro-opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the civilian deaths had been caused by the fearsome barrage that preceded pro-government troops’ relentless advance.
Although other activists and residents in eastern Aleppo said there had been summary executions, the information was secondhand and none had witnessed the killings.
The government’s victory in Aleppo, though significant, does not end the conflict — significant parts of Syria are still outside government control, and huge swaths of the country are a devastated wasteland. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed.
Earlier this week, Islamic State jihadists waged a daring raid on the ancient city of Palmyra, taking it back nine months after a grueling government campaign to oust the extremist group.
Bulos is a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
5:05 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional reporting, quotes, background.
2:50 p.m.: This article has been updated to include Times reporting and reaction from Syria.
1 p.m.: This article was updated to include the U.N. envoy for Syria commenting on the safe withdrawal of people and other information.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with Russia's U.N. ambassador saying military action in eastern Aleppo has ended.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with reports of a cease-fire between Syrian rebels and Russia.
5:33 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
5:05 a.m.: This article was updated with a report that dozens of children are trapped in a building under fire in Aleppo.
This article was originally published at 4:50 a.m.