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3,000 people evacuated from eastern Aleppo so far as fragile ceasefire holds

A line of buses and ambulances snake into, and out of, eastern Aleppo as efforts to get people out of the rebel-held eastern areas of the besieged Syrian city finally are underway.

'The vast majority of people we transferred today are civilians,' humanitarian workers say

People walk as they gather to be removed from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

Some 3,000 civilians and more than 40 wounded people, including children, were evacuated from eastern Aleppo on Thursday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Many more" rotations of buses and ambulances will be needed in coming days, said Robert Mardini, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, in an interview with Reuters in his Geneva office.

He had just been briefed by ICRC's Syria delegation chief, Marianne Gasser, who is in Aleppo.

"This for us is the first step — it was a positive one," Mardini said after the first of two evacuations from the eastern part of the city where government forces are poised to take full control. 

The ICRC said a third convoy had headed for Aleppo after dusk. The first evacuees were escorted on buses and 13 ambulances through government-held west Aleppo to opposition-controlled areas, where they will choose where they want to go.  

Evacuees from rebel-held east Aleppo arrive at the town of al-Rashideen. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Syrian authorities conducted "very light screening" of the evacuees, who were not registered and whose identity papers were not checked, he said. 

"So far, the vast majority of people we transferred today are civilians," he said. The priority remains to help the critically injured, because "it's a matter of life and death."

I will just go and not look back.— Zouhir   al-Shimale, freelance journalist

Russia told the United Nations the evacuation includes removing the wounded and sick, civilians and rebel combatants, according to the world body's Syria humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland. 

Russia said "no harm will meet those who are evacuated" from besieged areas, Egeland told reporters in Geneva.

Egeland said earlier there could be 30,000 people left in the small and crowded enclave, and that the UN is working to establish if it had been wrong to say that 250,000 were trapped there until about a month ago.

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      A Russian military official said the evacuees will travel to the rebel-controlled province of Idlib.

      Lt.-Gen. Viktor Poznikhir said their progress will be monitored by drones in order to "prevent provocations."

      Turkey's president said his country is prepared to receive the most vulnerable evacuees. 

      In a televised address Thursday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey will take "children, elders, those who are really in difficult conditions."

      Sharing a border with Syria, Turkey has played a pivotal role in managing Europe's refugee crisis. It is also a leading supporter of the Syrian rebels and negotiated the Aleppo ceasefire with Russia.

      Ceasefire briefly broken 

      Thursday's evacuations are taking place under a fragile ceasefire brokered by Turkey, which supports some of the rebel groups, and Moscow. 

      Buses and ambulances were supposed to go in on Wednesday but turned back amid renewed shelling and airstrikes. The ceasefire was re-established overnight, but was briefly broken again when the first attempt at a convoy on Thursday came under fire. 

      One person was killed in that attack, according to a rescue service spokesman.

      Residents allowed to flee Syrian town as ceasefire holds 0:59

      Freelance journalist Zouhir al-Shimale, who has been covering the siege of Aleppo from within rebel territory, is among those preparing to leave. 

      "The last few days was very desperate," Shimale told CBC News. 

      "I will just leave, maybe tomorrow or tonight, as soon as I get capability to go. I will just go and not look back." 

      Separately — but in a key addendum to the ceasefire agreement — Syria state TV said 29 buses and ambulances were heading to two Shia villages besieged by rebels to evacuate those critically ill and other humanitarian cases. 

      Effective surrender

      The rebels held the eastern part of the city for four years, but their enclave rapidly evaporated in recent days in the face of a fierce Syrian government onslaught.

      The evacuation marks the city's return to the government.

      Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday that "history is being made" with the defeat of Aleppo's insurgents.

      In a video message posted on the Syrian presidency's Telegram channel, Assad said that "what is happening is bigger than congratulations."

      Driving the rebels from one of Syria's most prominent cities is Assad's greatest victory since the start of the conflict.

      A Syrian soldier carries a wounded woman in eastern Aleppo, on Monday, in a photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA. (SANA/Associated Press)

      U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Assad government is carrying out "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo.

      Speaking at a news briefing, Kerry said the U.S. is seeking an immediate, verifiable, and durable cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, and he called on the international community to exert pressure to move the process forward.

      With files from The Associated Press and CBC News