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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Assad Hails 'Liberation of Aleppo' as Historic

By VOA News December 15, 2016

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday said that history would be made with what he referred to as the "liberation of Aleppo."

"What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today. It started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria," Assad said in a video posted to his official Twitter account.

Assad likened his government's recapture of Aleppo to other historical events, including the birth of Jesus Christ and the fall of the Soviet Union, and said history would be permanently altered.

"History is not the same before and after ... I think after liberating Aleppo we will say that not only the Syrian situation, but also the regional and international situation, is different," he said.

Assad's comments came after ambulances and green government buses began evacuating wounded and other civilians from the last rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Thursday as part of a new cease-fire expected to last three days. Evacuation attempts had been halted a day earlier due to heavy fighting.

The long line of buses and ambulances headed out of besieged eastern Aleppo and into government-held territory before eventually making it to another rebel-held part of the province.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society said the first evacuees reached the safe zone Thursday afternoon.

"Red Crescent vehicles carrying the wounded have arrived, and the wounded will be transferred to ... nearby hospitals for treatment," said Ahmad al-Dbis, who leads the doctors and other volunteers involved in the evacuation.

According to the World Health Organization, 21 buses and 19 ambulances were involved in the evacuation.

"We saw women and small children on the buses and some men. They were not full. Everything went very smoothly. It was very calm," Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Syria, told the Reuters news agency.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is also prepared to accept evacuees from Aleppo.

Erdogan, in a televised address Thursday, said Turkey will accept "children, elders, those who are really in difficult conditions."

U.N. humanitarian envoy Jan Egeland told reporters he hoped to see the start of a "last and successful attempt" at evacuations from eastern Aleppo, which opposition fighters seized in 2012.

He said the operation included medical evacuations of wounded and sick people, other vulnerable civilians, and the rebel fighters. Most of them were bound for Idlib, while others may opt to go to Turkey.

More violence was reported early Thursday, with activists and local medical officials saying pro-government forces fired on an ambulance that tried to leave rebel-held territory, wounding at least three people.

The final departure of rebels from Aleppo would mark a major victory for Assad. His forces have been pressing a Russia-backed military campaign that accelerated in recent weeks as they captured more and more territory from the opposition.

Years of fighting and a government siege have left much of the city in rubble and drawn alarm from the international community and aid groups worried about the thousands of people in need of food and medical attention.

Specter of 'war crimes'

France called for another emergency session of the U.N. Security Council Thursday to discuss the situation in Aleppo.

The purpose of the meeting, according to a letter sent from France to the security council president, is to address "the imperative need to ensure full, immediate, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access and guarantee the evacuation of all civilians in proper conditions."

The U.N. body held an emergency meeting earlier this week in which Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon urged the 15-member countries to "do all we can to stop the carnage."

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson publicly called out Russian and Iranian ambassadors after holding separate meetings with the two diplomats, saying they failed to protect civilians in Aleppo and broke international law by failing to allow aid into the city.

"They deserve no credit for the fact that an evacuation appears to be underway today. Having inflicted such suffering on the people of eastern Aleppo, Iran and Russia cannot expect praise for allowing some people to escape at the final hour," he said in a statement after the meetings.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein said the resumption of fighting early Wednesday was appalling, and that "the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the Syrian government forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians ... most likely constitutes war crimes."

Zeid demanded that the Syrian government provide medical aid to Aleppo residents wounded during the bombardment, as required by international law, and said, "The way this deal was dangled in front of this battered and beleaguered population -- causing them to hope they might indeed live to see another day -- and then snatched away just half a day later is also outrageously cruel."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that collects reports about the prolonged civil war, said there were "very intense clashes on every front line," both in rebel-held and government-controlled parts of the city. Casualties were reported on both sides.

Genesis of cease-fire

Members of the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group told the French news agency the new cease-fire deal was reached through negotiations between the Russian military and the Turkish Red Crescent Society.

Other reports said Iran, another major supporter of the Assad regime, held up the new cease-fire agreement until it had assurances that evacuations from Aleppo would be carried out simultaneously with the rescue of wounded people in two Shi'ite villages under siege by rebel forces.

Abdul Salaam Abdul Razak, a military spokesman for the Nureddin al-Zinki group, said evacuations from the villages in Idlib province were confirmed late Wednesday, assuring the exodus from eastern Aleppo could begin at dawn Thursday.

An official of another rebel group, Jabha Shamiya, told Reuters about 1,000 wounded people were expected to leave Aleppo first, and that the entire evacuation could be completed within three days.

Trading blame

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a news conference Thursday chided the Russians for failing to fulfill their stated goal for entering Syria, which was to help in the political transition, and said "a political path" is the only solution that will end the violence in Aleppo.

"The Russians came in – I'll remind you – to Syria saying that they were there to promote precisely that political transition. And they haven't done that. And they also said they were coming in to fight ISIL (Islamic State) and they haven't done that either," Carter said.

Russia blamed the rebels for breaking the cease-fire early Wednesday, allegedly by attacking Syrian government positions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was Syrian government forces who began the attack.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone Wednesday afternoon that the Syrian government was willing to provide a safe exit for civilians and rebel fighters, but the rebels refused to adhere to the cease-fire, according to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russian and U.S. diplomats have been gathered in Geneva for several days, discussing a long-term peace deal for Aleppo, but by Thursday morning those conversations had broken down, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

"They have been suspended," Ryabkov reportedly told Russian state news agency TASS.

The discussions between the two countries' diplomats had been ongoing since Sunday.

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