The UN Security Council has unanimously approved a resolution calling for the immediate deployment of United Nations monitors to eastern Aleppo, with France saying it must be implemented to prevent "mass atrocities" by Syrian forces in areas formerly held by rebels.
The resolution adopted by the 15-nation council on December 19 calls for the United Nations and other institutions to monitor evacuations from eastern Aleppo and says that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must urgently consult Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and other parties on security and arrangements for the immediate deployment of the monitors.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that adoption of the resolution was just a first step and that all sides, especially Assad's government and its allies, which include Russia and Iran, must implement it immediately.
"France calls on each side, in particular the regime and its supporters, to be responsible so that this resolution is implemented without delay and a lasting cease-fire is put in place across the country," he said.
Veto-wielding permanent Security Council members France and Russia had submitted competing draft resolutions but announced agreement on a text after more than three hours of talks behind closed doors on December 18.
The resolution also demands that all parties allow unconditional and immediate access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid and medical care, and that they "respect and protect all civilians across Aleppo and throughout Syria."
The vote came amid efforts to evacuate civilians from eastern Aleppo, most of which had been held by rebels until a major government offensive this fall supported from Assad's allies Russia and Iran.
France has warned of what it said could be "mass atrocities" by Syrian forces and pro-government militias as they assume control.
On December 19, evacuations from the rebel-held pocket in Aleppo and from two villages besieged by rebels began after a dayslong standoff.
Dozens of buses carrying thousands of people from eastern Aleppo reached rebel-held areas to the west of the city, a UN official and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said 4,500 civilians had left east Aleppo since midnight, bringing the number of evacuees to 12,000.
UNICEF, the UN children's agency, said 47 children who had been trapped in an orphanage in east Aleppo have been safely evacuated, though some were in "critical condition from injuries and dehydration."
Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians from the Shi'ite villages of Foua and Kefraya in northwestern Syria arrived in government-held Aleppo, the observatory and state television reported.
The evacuation of civilians from the villages was a condition for the departure of people trapped in the remaining rebel-held area of Aleppo.
On December 18, armed assailants attacked and set fire to buses that were about to transport the sick and injured from the villages.
Eastern Aleppo had been held by the rebels since 2012, but Syrian government forces and their allies squeezed them into small corners of the city over the past month. along with thousands of civilians.
Russia, Iran, Turkey To Meet
Evacuations from the remaining rebel-held parts of the city started last week before collapsing on December 16.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the defense and foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey were to meet in Moscow on December 20 to discuss Syria.
The meeting will be "dedicated to the problems of the Syrian settlement" and aim at "facilitating the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions."
The meeting will be to "understand the views of all three sides, laying out where we all stand and discuss where we go from here," an official from Turkey's Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying.
"It is not a miracle meeting, but will give all sides a chance to listen to each other," the official added.
All three countries have played key roles in the Syrian war, with Iran and Russia strongly backing Assad while NATO member Turkey has been a main supporter of the rebels.
The evacuation efforts follow a cease-fire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey after Assad's forces and their allies drove rebels out of most of eastern Aleppo in an offensive that has been sharply criticized by the UN and Western governments.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week accused Assad of committing "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo, and the UN human rights chief said that the "bombardment by the Syrian government forces and their allies [of] an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constitutes war crimes."
Four Syrian organizations including the search-and-rescue group known as the White Helmets accused Russia of having "committed or been complicit in war crimes in Syria," saying that Russian air strikes in the Aleppo area had killed some 1,200 civilians since July.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and TASS