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The Syrian army and its allies said they were poised to declare victory in Aleppo after rebel defences collapsed on Monday, leaving insurgents in a tiny, heavily bombarded pocket of ground.
Reporters in the government-held zone said the bombardment of rebel areas of the city had continued non-stop on Monday, and a civilian trapped there described the situation as resembling “Doomsday”.
“The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They [the rebels] don’t have much time. They either have to surrender or die,” Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, head of the government’s Aleppo security committee, told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of the city.
Rebels withdrew from all districts on the east side of the Aleppo river on Monday afternoon after losing Sheikh Saeed in the south of their pocket in overnight fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In government-held districts soldiers started to fire into the air in celebration, carving tracer bullets into Aleppo’s night sky, and car drivers honked their horns at what they believed was imminent victory, state television showed.
The rebels’ rapidly diminishing enclave had halved in only a few hours and Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman described the battle for Aleppo as having reached its end.
“The situation is extremely difficult today,” said Zakaria Malahifji of the Fastaqim rebel group fighting in Aleppo.
An official from Jabha Shamiya, a rebel faction that is also present in Aleppo, said the insurgents might make a new stand along the west bank of the river.
“It is expected there will be a new front line,” said the official, who is based in Turkey.
Reports of atrocities
The White Helmets civil defence organisation and three other trapped aid groups made a desperate appeal for the international community to arrange safe passage for 100,000 civilians across a 4 km (2.5 mile) stretch of government-held territory.
“If we stay we fear for our lives. The women may be taken to camps, the men disappeared and anyone who is known to have supported civilians will face detention or execution,” they said in a statement time stamped 9pm (1900 GMT).
Activists and two residents inside the remaining rebel enclave said at least 79 civilians were summarily executed in the Fardous and Saliheen districts by pro-government militias.
“There are more than 100 corpses and others who could be still alive under the rubble whom no one is able to get to,” said civil defence chief Ammar al Selmo.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was alarmed by unverified reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children, Ban’s spokesman said.
Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser on Syria, tweeted that Russia’s and Syria’s governments would be responsible for any such abuses.
“The Gov’ts of Syria & Russia are accountable for any and all atrocities that the victorious militias in Aleppo are now committing!” Egeland wrote.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, is now close to taking back full control of Aleppo, which was Syria’s most populous city before the war and would be his greatest prize so far after nearly six years of conflict.
The Russian Defence Ministry said that since the start of the Aleppo battle, more than 2,200 rebels had surrendered and 100,000 civilians had left areas of the city that were controlled by militants.
“Displaced people are moving,” said an Aleppo resident. Some were moving from areas controlled by the army to opposition areas, while others were going in the opposite direction. Some were staying at home waiting for the army.
The Observatory said that four weeks into the army offensive at least 415 civilians, including 47 children, had been killed in rebel-held parts of the city.
At least said 364 rebel fighters have been killed in the eastern sector, the Observatory added. It said rebel shelling of government-held west Aleppo had killed 130 civilians including 40 children.
“People run from one shelling to another to escape death and just to save their souls … It’s doomsday in Aleppo, yes doomsday in Aleppo,” said Abu Amer Iqab, a former government employee in the Sukkari district in the heart of the rebel enclave.
Riad Hijab, Syria’s chief opposition coordinator, said the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo would not weaken the resolve of Assad’s opponents, or push them to water down the demand that he quit.
“If Assad and his allies think that a military advance in certain quarters of Aleppo will signify that we make concessions, then [I say] that will not happen,” he told reporters.