Rebel fighters and the Syrian government have reached an agreement to allow the evacuation of civilians and opposition fighters from eastern Aleppo, as Russia says the Assad regime has ended its offensive against the city.
A spokesman for the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group, Yasser al-Youssef, said Tuesday that the deal, which was mediated by Russia and Turkey, would take effect “within hours.”
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed the agreement to reporters prior to an emergency Security Council meeting on Aleppo called by France and Britain.
"My latest information is that there is indeed an arrangement achieved on the ground that the fighters are going to leave the city," Churkin said.
“Over the last hour, we have received information that military activities in east Aleppo have stopped,” he added later in the meeting. He said the government had re-established control over that part of the city and there could now be large-scale humanitarian initiatives.
“This very difficult chapter related to the situation in eastern Aleppo has ended,” Churkin said. "Let’s hope this indeed will be a precondition for establishing political efforts, relaunching political negotiations."
Churkin said most of the fighters who are leaving eastern Aleppo are going to the town of Idlib.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura expressed concern that Idlib could become the next target of a Syrian offensive. But he, too, echoed hopes that this could be a turning point that sends the parties back to the negotiating table.
“This is actually the best moment to be insisting in a peace process being restarted,” de Mistura told reporters. “In fact, we should be looking at this as tragic opportunity of accelerating, instead, the political process."
The cease-fire deal comes after the United Nations said Tuesday it has received reports of pro-government forces in Syria killing at least 82 civilians in four different neighborhoods in Aleppo, where the recapture of the last areas held by rebels is "imminent."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the organization supports these efforts and stands ready to help implement and oversee an agreement.
“We remind all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law, to prioritize the safe passage of civilians out of eastern Aleppo and to ensure that those who have surrendered or been captured are treated humanely and in line with international law,” Ban told council members.
At the council session, Western members fiercely criticized Moscow for its ongoing support to the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the atrocities being committed in Aleppo.
“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power asked. “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
Britain’s envoy, Matthew Rycroft, echoed the words of Ban, saying the Security Council had failed.
“It’s failed because Russia has used and abused its veto time and again, even to prevent a seven-day cease-fire,” Rycroft said.
But Russian envoy Churkin dismissed Western criticism of Moscow’s support for the Assad regime and reports of horrific atrocities from Aleppo as part of a “propaganda, disinformation and psychological” war.
He cited the phenomenon of the “spread of fake news,” saying “for their fabrication people even stoop to using children” adding that they cover them “with dust to be presented as victims of bombings.”
In Geneva, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters that it is difficult to verify reports, and that it was not clear when exactly the killings were to have taken place.
"We hope profoundly that these reports are wrong or exaggerated," he said.
Colville called for the United Nations or another organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed to monitor the situation in Aleppo in order to alleviate concerns about potential rights abuses.
"Civilians have paid a brutal price during this conflict, and we're filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held eastern Aleppo," he said.
The ICRC also warned Tuesday that thousands of civilians in eastern Aleppo "have literally nowhere safe to run" and urged those involved in fighting there to protect them.
The group said in a statement that time is running out to find a humanitarian solution, and that it is ready to help put in place any agreement that puts civilians first.
"We cannot urge this strongly enough: this must happen now," said Marianne Gasser, ICRC's head of delegation in Syria.
Rebels lose territory
The recapture of the last rebel-held areas would have major symbolic significance and leave the regime and its foreign backers, Russia and Iran, free to focus their military might on remaining rebel strongholds in the rest of western Syria.
Rebel commanders and opposition politicians insist the loss of Aleppo will not mark the end of the uprising.
However, few doubt battlefield fortunes have swung heavily against them and with the regime possibly hours away from seizing what is left of insurgent-controlled eastern Aleppo, the dynamic of resistance will have to change to guerrilla warfare to the keep the revolution alive.
VOA’s Jamie Dettmer contributed to this report.