As Aleppo entered the final hours of battle and rebels cling on to tiny pockets of the city, rebel officials have said a ceasefire agreement with the government has been reached.
Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser for umbrella group the Free Syrian Army, said a ceasefire was due to go into effect on Tuesday evening, and five buses of both rebels and civilians are supposed to leave the city Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
Details on the Turkish-Russian-brokered deal are thin on the ground. Diplomatic and humanitarian sources told The Independent it was unclear how long the truce would be in place, or how many people would be allowed to leave the rebel enclave.
There had been worries ahead of the deal that the Syrian government, so close to victory, would not heed the international community's call for a truce. The army will declare control of the whole of Aleppo “at any moment”, Syrian state television said on Tuesday afternoon, before the ceasefire was announced.
“We warily welcome [the ceasefire],” one Western diplomat said. “We'll believe it when we see it.”
“Nobody is going to harm the civilians,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, stressed during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York to address the crisis.
Concerns for civilians' safety are more pressing than ever as militia forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were reported to have entered homes and killed at least 82 civilians during their advance on rebel-held territory.
Head of the UN's human rights office Rupert Colville said that six different sources had confirmed 82 non-combatants were shot in four different neighbourhoods overnight on Monday. The reports included 11 women and 13 children killed.
“Yesterday evening, we received further deeply disturbing reports that numerous bodies were lying on the streets,” he told reporters in Geneva. “The residents were unable to retrieve them due to the intense bombardment and their fear of being shot on sight.”
There has been a “complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo”, UN spokesperson Jens Laerke added. About 100 children were trapped in a building under fire and separated from remaining family members on Tuesday, a doctor told Unicef.
An activist still in the city also said that snipers had shot at people on the streets.
Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International's Beirut office, said the reports that civilians, including children, were being massacred in cold blood were “deeply shocking but not unexpected”, given other such incidents in the war. She went on to call the allegations “war crimes”.
The Syrian military has denied the claims, calling them a “desperate attempt” to garner international sympathy.
On the government controlled side of the city, residents have been celebrating the fall of the rebels – who have killed hundreds of civilians in west Aleppo in rocket attacks – with music, dancing and fireworks.
Exact figures are difficult to verify, but between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians are still thought to be trapped by fighting in the rebel enclave, which is now as small as 2.5 square miles.
Videos reportedly taken inside the city show scenes of horrific destruction and human misery caused by intense bombing, as almost all medical and aid services have broken down. Scores of bodies remained trapped under rubble which are unreachable, the local White Helmets civil defence service said, and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed.
For those left alive, what comes after the city falls may be even worse. Civilians and activists are afraid of detention or more executions by Shia militias allied to the Syrian government and army troops if they are suspected of being members of the opposition.
Several activists posted goodbye messages on Monday before going silent. “Anyone who knows anything about the Assad regime should know what to expect. Death will be a wish for those captured and deemed [to be] opposition, weather [sic] military or civil,” one wrote in a Whatsapp message to journalists.
Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian adviser on Syria, tweeted that the Russian and Syrian 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!,” he wrote.
Reports have already emerged of up to 6,000 men in territory recaptured by the government being detained in the last month. There wherabouts are still unknown, the UN says.
Aleppo has been divided into a government-controlled west and rebel-controlled east more than four years.
East Aleppo’s supply chains were cut off in August, leaving its 250,000 residents and around 8,000 fighters – among them al-Qaeda affiliated forces – under siege conditions.
With rebel opposition relegated to tiny slivers of their former stronghold, Mr Assad is set to recapture the entire city in what will be his biggest victory yet in the almost-six-year-old civil war.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies