Assad cements hold over Aleppo as residents rejoice

Troops check recaptured areas for explosives as civilians return after staying away for years

ALEPPO (Syria) • Syrian troops cemented their hold on Aleppo yesterday after retaking full control of the city, as residents anxious to return to their homes moved through its ruined streets.

In the morning, government fighters moved into Ansari and Al-Mashhad, two neighbourhoods they had not entered since mid-2012.

They searched for improvised explosive devices and mines, clearing buildings in anticipation of civilians returning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

In Bustan al-Qasr, a heavily damaged neighbourhood near Aleppo's famed old city, small bulldozers removed rubble from the streets.

Braving the cold, war-weary residents crossed districts that had become infamous front lines, eager to return to neighbourhoods they had not seen in years.

As the army moved through Al-Myassar district, Ms Umm Abdo, 42, said she had found her former home, but it had been destroyed. "There's nothing left... but houses can be rebuilt," she said.

"I came to check on my house, which I haven't seen in five years," said resident Khaled al-Masri. "I really hope my home wasn't badly damaged."

A man displaying a placard with Mr Assad's portrait as people thronged the streets in Aleppo on Thursday.
A man displaying a placard with Mr Assad's portrait as people thronged the streets in Aleppo on Thursday. |PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Thousands of people in western Aleppo took to the streets on Thursday to rejoice over the Syrian regime's successful operation to retake the eastern side of their city from rebels after a years-long battle.

Celebratory gunfire began to erupt and crowds started to fill the streets as soon as the army announced that the last rebels had left east Aleppo.

"We've been waiting five years for this. We have suffered, what with the rebels, the water shortages and the power cuts," said Ms Rana al-Salem, 29, as tears welled in her eyes and the noise rose to a crescendo in the background.

But at least one civilian was killed yesterday in the first wave of rebel rocket fire on Aleppo since the Syrian city was declared under full government control, said the Syrian Observatory.

Ten rockets hit the southern district of Al-Hamdaniyeh, wounding eight other civilians, according to the monitoring group.

Syrian state news agency Sana put the toll at three civilians killed and at least six others wounded.

The fire was the first rebel attack since Syria's armed forces announced that Aleppo was back under their control following a fierce month-long offensive.

The western side of the city remained under the control of President Bashar al-Assad's forces throughout the conflict, and also suffered heavy shelling and loss of life.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Russia, Iran, Turkey and Mr Assad had agreed to attend peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana to try to resolve the conflict in Syria.

Mr Putin said the evacuation of Aleppo would not have been possible without the help of Russia, Iran and Turkey or the goodwill of Mr Assad.

He said the next step for Syria would be a nationwide ceasefire.

YEARS OF SUFFERING AT AN END

We have suffered, what with the rebels, the water shortages and the power cuts.

MS RANA AL-SALEM HOPES OF REBUILDING

There's nothing left... but houses can be rebuilt.

MS UMM ABDO, saying she had found her former home, but it had been destroyed.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said earlier yesterday that he expected the talks in Astana to take place in the middle of next month.

Mr Putin also said yesterday that the recapture of Aleppo by Syrian regime forces was a "very important" step towards stabilising the war-torn country.

"The liberation of Aleppo from radical elements is a very important part of the normalisation in Syria and, I hope, for the region overall," Mr Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at a meeting, said the Kremlin.

The loss of east Aleppo is the biggest blow to the rebel movement in Syria's nearly six-year conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'Assad cements hold over Aleppo as residents rejoice'. Print Edition | Subscribe