BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels outside Aleppo on Friday shelled a neighborhood in the northern city, killing three people in the first bombardment since government forces took control of the whole city after opposition fighters in the eastern parts withdrew, state TV reported.
The shelling, which also wounded 10 people, underscored the challenge ahead for President Bashar Assad’s forces after retaking full control of the country’s largest city and former commercial hub for the first time in four years.
The rebel surrender in Aleppo ended a brutal chapter in Syria’s nearly six-year civil war, and marked Assad’s most significant victory since an uprising against his family’s four-decade rule began in 2011. But large parts of the war-shattered country remain outside his control, including rural areas in Aleppo province south and west of the city where opposition fighters still operate.
Syrian TV said Friday’s rockets which hit the southwestern neighborhood of Hamadaniyeh were fired by insurgents based southwest of Aleppo.
Footage aired Friday from inside neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo taken over by the army after the last rebels were bused out a day earlier captured the staggering destruction: Row after row of destroyed buildings, many with blown out doors and windows, and toppled floors, along debris-strewn streets lined with charred vehicles
In the Sukkari, Ansari and Amiriyeh neighborhoods, army experts were seen dismantling explosives and booby-traps left behind by rebels before they left.
Syrian TV showed troops inside what it said was an armed depot in the basement of a school in the neighborhood of Zaydiyeh. Piles of wooden boxes filled with ammunition, rifles, and at least on Russian-made Grad rocket were shown in the video.
Pro-government TV stations reported that rebels killed dozens of prisoners they were holding before they evacuated the city. Syrian rebels denied the reports in an exchange monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, saying the prisoners were released.
A Syrian military official told The Associated Press that the gunmen carried out “criminal acts” before the left east Aleppo, adding that he will not go into details until a military investigation is over. He spoke by telephone from Syria on condition of anonymity in line with army regulations.
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has also sent fighters to Syria to back Assad, said the capture of Aleppo means that attempts to remove Assad from power have failed. In an address from an undisclosed location aired on the group’s al-Manar TV, Nassrallah added that the capture of Aleppo marks a new phase in the conflict, although Assad and his allies’ first task will be to fortify Aleppo and its surrounding areas.
“The armed groups will work on targeting the city and nearby areas,” Nasrallah said, referencing rebel backers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s key backers, said it’s necessary to establish a cease-fire across the entire territory of Syria, to be followed by peace talks.
“In the next stage, an agreement on a cease-fire on the entire territory of Syria should be reached and practical talks on a political settlement should start immediately after,” Putin said at his annual news conference.
He said the leaders of Turkey and Iran, which have helped broker the withdrawal of the remaining civilians and militants from Aleppo, have agreed that Syria peace talks should be held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. He added that Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed to that proposal.
On Friday, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a meeting with Putin that a military police battalion had been deployed to eastern Aleppo the previous evening to “ensure order.” He didn’t specify how many troops had been deployed.
Shoigu told Putin that the Russian military is helping restore water and energy supplies to eastern districts of Aleppo and clearing them from mines. Shoigu said that an agreement on a “complete cease-fire” in Syria is very close, didn’t offer details.
Syrian state TV said the Russian force aims to protect explosive experts in the Russian base of Hemeimeem on the coast.
The ancient city had been divided into rebel and government parts since 2012, when rebels from the countryside swept in and took hold of eastern districts. That set the stage for more than four years of brutal fighting and government bombardment that laid waste to those neighborhoods.
The rebel evacuations were set in motion after a months-long siege and Russian-backed military campaign. Years of resistance were stamped out in a relentless campaign over the past month that saw hospitals bombed, bodies left unburied and civilians killed by shells as they fled for safety.
Under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, tens of thousands of residents and fighters began evacuating to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process that took a week and ended Thursday night.
Western Aleppo erupted in heavy celebratory gunfire following an army announcement that Aleppo was fully liberated.
In a square in the city, scores of people danced around a large Christmas tree waving Syrian and Russian flags as well as yellow banners of the Lebanese Hezbollah group that sent thousands of fighters to back Assad’s forces.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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