The historic Old City of Aleppo, a world heritage site, now lies in ruins after four years of conflict. After pro-government forces recaptured the historic area from rebel fighters, Syrian army soldiers took journalists on a tour of two Old City neighbourhoods.

Before the civil war started, Aleppo was the country's largest city, a busy commercial powerhouse and a proud historic centre. Aleppo landmarks included a millennium-old minaret towering above Umayyad mosque, an imposing citadel overlooking the old city centre, a medieval souk (covered market) and a 21st century shopping mall.

Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo Old City

The conflict in Syria erupted in 2011 and exploded into Aleppo in the summer of 2012, when rebel fighters took over the east of the city. The rebels hoped their march into Aleppo marked the beginning of the end for President Assad, while the government in Damascus pledged to swiftly drive them out. Neither side achieved those goals, and the war in Aleppo dragged on more than four years.

As the fighting ground on, Aleppo became the biggest prize of the civil war, even as the city itself crumbled under air strikes from government forces and bombardment by both sides. The 11th century minaret at the mosque was destroyed three years ago, and sections of the medieval souk have been burned down. Street after street in Hamediya and al Rashdeen neighbourhood are reduced to rubble.

Drone footage shows destruction of historic Aleppo Reuters
Aleppo Old City
Destruction is pictured in the al-Shaar neighbourhood of wast Aleppo after government forces took control of the areaGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A street view of destruction in the Al-Safa neighbourhood of Aleppo after it was captured by government forcesGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Syrian pro-government forces manoeuvre a tank in the newly retaken areas of Sahat al-Melh and Qasr al-Adly in Aleppo's Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Syrian pro-government forces walk amid wrecked vehicles in Aleppo's Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Aleppo's historic citadel is seen after Syrian pro-government forces retook the Old City from rebel fightersGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces stands in front of the historic citadel in the Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood in Aleppo's Old City, after taking control of the areaGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Destroyed buildings and a fountain are seen in the Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood, in Aleppo's Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Syrian pro-government forces patrol the Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood, in Aleppo's Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A makeshift barricade erected by rebel forces is seen in the Bab al-Hadid district in Aleppo's Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Forces in Aleppo Old CityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Syrian government troops gather as they patrol Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood after taking control of the area in the eastern part of the northern Syrian cityGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A general view shows destruction in the Al-Safa neighbourhood of AleppoGeorge Ourfalian/AFP

The Russian military said on Friday 9 December it had helped more than 8,000 Syrian citizens flee parts of eastern Aleppo still controlled by rebels in the last 24 hours, including almost 3,000 children. The Russian military said in a statement that 14 rebels had also surrendered to Syrian government forces, laying down their weapons and crossing into western Aleppo. They had all been pardoned, it said.

Russia announced that the Syrian army was suspending combat operations to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged rebel-held districts, but residents and medics inside eastern Aleppo said there was no let up in the bombardment. During a tour of Old Aleppo, Reuters journalists counted the sound of nine air raids in about half an hour. The Russian defence ministry said its forces were working hard to demine areas in eastern Aleppo.

Aleppo Old City
Smoke is seen rising from the Old City of Aleppo after shelling on 7 DecemberGeorge Ourfalian/AFP

Tens of thousands of residents have fled to western Aleppo, and those remaining are now cornered in the southern part of the formerly rebel-held east. Photos show families emerging from ravaged districts, some of them with children, as civilians continued to stream out of the ever-shrinking enclave that had been held by rebels since 2012.

Aleppo Old City
Residents fleeing the violence gather at a checkpoint, manned by pro-government forces, in the Maysaloun neighbourhood of AleppoGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A member of the government forces pushes an injured woman in a wheelchair as civilians are evacuated from Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood after government forces took control of the areaGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
A woman and child fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo cry as they leave their homeGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo evacuate from their neighbourhoods through the Bab al-Hadid districtGeorge Ourfalian/AFP
Aleppo Old City
Residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo evacuate through the Bab al-Hadid district after it was seized by the government forcesGeorge Ourfalian/AFP

The UN human rights office said it is deeply concerned about reports that hundreds of men have gone missing after crossing from eastern Aleppo into government-controlled areas of the city. Spokesman Rupert Colville said that family members have reported losing contact with the men, who are between the ages of 30 and 50, after they fled opposition-held areas of Aleppo around a week or 10 days ago.

Colville said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is also concerned by reports that some civilians trying to flee are being blocked by armed opposition groups and in some cases being fired upon.

An opposition official disputed government claims that the army now holds 90 per cent of eastern Aleppo, saying that more than a dozen neighbourhoods remain in rebel hands. "More than thirty per cent of east Aleppo is controlled by us," said Osama Abu Zayd, an adviser to the loose rebel umbrella group known as the Free Syrian Army. Speaking from Turkey, where he is based, he said the Syrian army and Russians were still targeting rebel positions on the front lines.

Aleppo Old City
Rebel fighters pose with their weapons in one of the few rebel-held areas of AleppoAbdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
Aleppo Old City
Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they pose in a rebel-held area of AleppoAbdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
Aleppo Old City
An injured woman walks at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Ansari neighbourhood of AleppoAbdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Russia's military, meanwhile, said it has helped more than 8,000 civilians leave the rebel-controlled eastern part of Aleppo in the last 24 hours.