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Syrian troops increased their hold on Aleppo on Friday after retaking full control of the city, as residents anxious to return to their homes moved through its ruined streets.
Syria’s army announced on Thursday it had recaptured the former rebel stronghold of east Aleppo following a landmark evacuation deal that saw thousands of opposition fighters and residents bussed out.
It was the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in nearly six years of civil war and a major win for his foreign backers, with key ally Russia hailing the recapture as a “very important” step.
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.
An AFP correspondent saw civilians wrapped in coats trekking through the cold, some rolling their belongings on wheelbarrows.
“I came to check on my house, which I haven’t seen in five years,” resident Khaled al-Masri said. “I really hope my home wasn’t badly damaged.”
The evacuation operation ended more than four years of ferocious fighting inside Aleppo, which had been divided between government forces in the west and rebels in the east.
Opposition forces remain in control of areas west of Aleppo and on Friday at least one civilian was killed in the first wave of rebel rocket fire on the city since it fell under government control, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Eight people were also wounded in the fire on the Al-Hamdaniyeh district, the Britain-based monitor said, while state news agency SANA reported three killed.
The evacuation agreement was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime supporter Russia, which said it would strive to end fighting across Syria.
“The liberation of Aleppo from radical elements is a very important part of the normalisation in Syria, and I hope, for the region overall,” President Vladimir Putin said.
“Everything needs to be done for fighting to stop on all Syrian territory,” Putin said. “In any case, we will strive toward this.”
The Kremlin also announced that Putin had signed an order to expand Russia’s naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus.
On Friday 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, the Observatory said.
In Bustan al-Qasr, a heavily damaged neighbourhood near Aleppo’s famed old city, small bulldozers removed rubble from the streets.
As the army moved through Al-Myassar district, 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.
Syria’s war transformed Aleppo from the country’s industrial hub to a worldwide symbol of bloodshed and devastation.
The army’s statement on Thursday announced “the return of security to Aleppo after its release from terrorism and terrorists, and the departure of those who stayed there”.
Celebrations in west Aleppo
Thousands of people in west Aleppo erupted in celebration at the declaration, chanting slogans in support of Assad’s regime amid blaring car horns.
It came after state television said the last convoy of four buses carrying rebels and civilians had left east Aleppo and arrived in the government-controlled Ramussa district south of the city.
The evacuation deal, overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, put an end to a month-long offensive waged on Aleppo’s east by pro-government forces.
The ICRC said the operation had seen 35,000 people bussed out of the last rebel-held pocket of territory in the city.
Another 1,200 people were also evacuated from Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shiite-majority towns in northwest Syria that had been besieged by rebels, as part of the agreement.
The evacuation was a pivotal moment in a war that has triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.
Nearly six years in, the conflict has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population.
As well as a major strategic gain for Assad, the army’s win in Aleppo has put the spotlight on the role of powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey, which agreed this week to guarantee new peace talks and backed expanding a ceasefire.
Repeated attempts at peace for Syria have failed, but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hopes to convene fresh talks in Geneva in February.