By Rim Haddad and Sara Hussein, AFP
Aleppo, Syria–Rebels in Aleppo called for a five-day truce and the evacuation of civilians Wednesday after losing more than three quarters of their territory including the Old City to a Syrian army offensive. In the face of a blistering assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the rebels were reported to have retreated Wednesday from all of Aleppo’s Old City, the latest in a string of territorial losses. After three weeks of heavy fighting, regime forces appeared closer than ever to retaking all of Aleppo and winning their most important victory yet in the civil war that began in 2011. Rebel fighters have rejected calls to withdraw from the city, which had been divided between government and opposition forces since 2012, but on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling for an “immediate five-day humanitarian cease-fire.” The statement, which rebel representatives told AFP had been approved by all armed opposition factions in the city, called for “the evacuation of civilians who wish to leave” the city’s east to rebel territory in northern Aleppo province.
It made no mention of the fate of rebel fighters and urged “negotiations on the future of the city.” Syria’s government has said it will not agree to any ceasefire in Aleppo without a guarantee of a full rebel withdrawal. The ceasefire offer came after opposition forces retreated from their last positions in Aleppo’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its medieval buildings and souk. The rebels withdrew from the Old City overnight after the army seized the neighboring districts of Bab al-Hadid and Aqyul, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said. ‘We lived on edge’ After seizing areas east of the Old City on Tuesday — including the large and strategic Shaar neighborhood — the army and allied forces were in control of 75 percent of the territory previously held by rebels in east Aleppo, the Observatory said.
The offensive showed no signs of slowing and overnight the army carried out heavy shelling of the Al-Zabdiya neighborhood and other territory still under rebel control in the southeast of the city, the monitor said. The assault has prompted a mass exodus of east Aleppo residents and the Observatory said Wednesday that at least 80,000 had now fled their homes. It said the figure included residents who had sought refuge in the government-held west of the city and a Kurdish-controlled enclave, but not those who fled to remaining rebel territory.