The Battle for Aleppo Newsnight

The Battle for Aleppo

Syria special, with James O'Brien. With Aleppo on the brink, we ask what is happening on the ground? Has Assad won, is there a new global order, and could it have been stopped?

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After years of war, are we finally seeing the endgame in Syria?


I trusted them 100 metres, not more. Anyone they see, they would shoot


him immediately. With a ceasefire now


apparently in place, we're devoting the whole


of tonight's Newsnight to Syria. Is Assad now on the brink of victory


in the Syrian civil war? Is the international


order being reshaped, And could anything have


been done to stop this? Are you truly incapable of shame? Is


there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of


barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under


your skin? That creeps you add a little bit?


Strong words from the Americans, but is it too late for Aleppo?


We'll attempt to answer these questions with the help of experts,


politicians, and witnesses on the ground.


The House of Commons heard today that doctors in improvised clinics


in the Syrian city of Aleppo are wearing boots because there


Their surviving patients are, in many ways, the lucky ones.


According to the United Nations, pro-Government forces in the East


of the city have been killing civilians, among them


women and children, in their homes and on the streets.


Streets which the UN's Human Rights office described


The rebels, who have held the East of the city for four years,


Tonight, as Russian's UN ambassador said a ceasefire was in place


and a deal allowing them to leave the city would be enacted


within hours, we ask whether that defeat would signal


of the Syrian civil war and deliver victory to the Russian


and Iranian-backed President Bashar Al-Assad.


And does Vladimir Putin's crucial role signal a further


crystallisation of lasting change to the established world order?


We will also consider whether the West, most obviously


the UK and Barack Obama's America, could have - even should have -


done more to staunch the flow of civilian blood.


Before social media, a besieged city would trap not just


Now, as pro-government forces advance on Eastern Aleppo,


horror stories seep out like blood under a locked door.


To everyone who can hear me, we are here exposed to a genocide


More than 50,000 civilians who rebelled against the dictator


Al Assad are threatened with field executions or dying under bombing.


These people, shown on Syrian television, appear able to escape.


However, not everyone encircled by pro-government forces feels it's


We are close to them, maybe 300 metres, not more.


They capture any neighbourhood, first thing they do,


They entered this building, anyone they see, anyone they see,


Anyone they see they will shoot them, immediately.


We cannot of course independently verify any of this, but the physical


Aleppo's medieval fortifications blown apart by modern war.


The UN is convinced that what is happening here is - quote -


The reports we've had are both being shot in the street or trying


Obviously people are being killed by the incredibly intense


So we've also had reports that, you know, bodies lying


in the streets and people unable to pick up those


Because of the intensity of the bombardment and the fear,


This is the image that the Syrian government wants the world to see,


grateful residents returning to a liberated city.


We don't know how many people, though, are left


As the remaining rebel fighters are squeezed into a smaller


and smaller footprint, so the suffering of the civilians


The civilians are stuck in a very small area that doesn't exceed


Tonight at the UN, Russia - which supports the Syrian government


The counterterrorism operation in Aleppo,


announced Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, will conclude in the next few hours.


The battle for Aleppo, four years of grinding,


bloody conflict, looks like it might be about to end, in victory


for the Assad government and their Russian backers.


David Crossman reporting on the events of today. Time to turn our


attention to tonight. Our chief international


correspondent Lyse Doucet has been Lyse, no shortage of contradiction


or confusion, what can we say of the latest developments with confidence?


We can say with confidence that the rebellion in east Aleppo is over, a


rebellion which began in July 2012 and which at one point in the years


that followed seemed at the point of capturing all Aleppo to the point


that a pro-government command of militia told me last week that in


Aleppo they had been reduced to only three streets. What a turnaround for


the Syrian army and its allies, most importantly Russia, and an array of


militias backed by Iran, it is a huge victory, the most significant


of the war, for the Syrian government, for President Bashir


al-Assad. But the future of Aleppo, a city divided, shredded, where


kilometre after kilometre, new you drive to the east


of the city, or that there are streets drained of life and colour,


haunted by the memories of what has gone on in the past four years. What


we do know is that tomorrow morning, if it is on time, the fighters and


their family will leave the battlefields of Aleppo, leave their


dreams and defiance behind and go to the city of Idlib in the West and


the stunner opposition control or go north to fight another day in the


area controlled by Turkish fighters and Turkish troops. Lyse Doucet,


thank you. Lord Ashdown was the UN


High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the aftermath


of their civil war. First, Bashar Farahat fled to Syria


in 2013 and arrived in the UK Bashar, it is harrowing enough to


see such pictures from a country one has never visited. What is it like


to see such pictures from one's home? We are used to watching these


pictures, and fortunately, this ongoing massacre for six years, it


is sometimes getting to the point where it hits the top news. It has


been the same since 2011, the killing of our people every single


day. The Assad regime killing them. Aleppo is my city and I spent quite


a lot of time in Aleppo and it is a disaster. We expected Aleppo, the


resistance to fall down and to end but we always expected that it might


be the same as what happened in a different areas of Syria, at least


keeping a safe passage for civilians to survive, and what is going on now


is a massacre and they are not giving any opportunity for these


people to survive. Have you been in touch with the people in the city


recently? Yes, I have many friends there and colleagues who used to


work in the hospital there, trying to help people, and hospitals of


course have been targeted for a long time, so there are no working


hospitals for two or three weeks. Today I could be in touch with a


colleague who is a medical doctor there. And he just could say that he


is still alive. And all our colleagues and friends are sending


their very last messages knowing that they will die at any moment.


They expect to die at the hands of government forces? Yes. After


hearing of filmed executions, killing people who fled to resume


areas, no one wants to experience that, to be detained, tortured, or


killed by militias, they preferred to die where they belong, to die in


their homes and their hospitals with their loved ones. There is no


optimism, for want of a better word, to be derived from this apparent


ceasefire announced tonight? We hope so. I think there is always


optimism, we are speaking about ours and every single hour hundreds of


people are being killed, but if I speak of 50,000 people trapped in


two or three square kilometres, every bomb could cause a massacre,


so the optimism of a ceasefire tomorrow might cause 20,000, 30,000,


we don't know commit huge numbers, the civil defence yesterday could


not count the number of people killed, the bodies on the streets.


They could not count them. So are speaking about tens of people being


killed every single hour. Bashar Farahat, many thanks indeed for your


time. Paddy Ashdown, it is stating the obvious to say that some people


watching will feel some desperate need to do something. Is there


anything that we could have done or could do now? James, listening to


Bashar, it is impossible to find words, you ask what is going on in


the ground, the answer is that it is an trained, you ask if this is the


end for Aleppo, it is although it must not be the end for the people


dropped inside, every bomb is a massacre, Bashar says that is the


risk. The West, I'm afraid, in these last five years has deliberately,


almost thoughtfully, manoeuvred itself into the position where it is


now an impotent bystander. It has no leverage. It has leverage to do one


thing now. List must be the first priority of the Western effort.


Those 50,000 people. There must not be another subunits. But Bosnia. I


was there when it happened and there is nothing of that matters in the


next 36 hours than those 50,000 people trapped in four square miles,


we have to get them out and get them to safety. Beyond that, there are


things that the West can do. I would like to come back to the 50,000


civilians in need of rescue, as you say. Do you have faith that the


ceasefire will hold? Surely regardless of your answer we can


only do what the Russians would let us do? I don't have faith but there


are things we can do, send in a UN mission, I found it difficult to


believe that the Russians would not permit that. Why hasn't it happened


already? A very good question. All sorts of reasons. I go back to that


vote in 2013 when our parliament refused to act in the face of Bashir


al-Assad using chemical weapons. I said at the time it was the most


shameful vote I'd ever participated in an parliament and it was true and


now there's a price to be paid for that. The West has lost any potency


in terms of what it might do, Russia has taken advantage of that and


moved into the vacuum, thousands of people have been killed. My bleak


guess, what can the West do now apart from trying to save those


50,000, the answer is, bluntly, not much. It does not have much leverage


on the ground. Moving away from that... Let me tell you what might


happen. Ceasefires don't work until both sides believe they have nothing


further to gain on the battlefield. My guess is that Assad and the


Russians decided that they were not in that position. They had to take


Aleppo before there could be a ceasefire. Russia does not want to


be involved in this in the long term, I think. They don't want to


get bogged down, I suspect both sides have reached a position where


everything they can gain on the battlefield has been more or less


gained, Aleppo is theirs and the conditions are there for some kind


of peace. Let me warn you it will be rough, bloody, untidy, dominated by


warlords, Bosnia on a large scale. The right thing now is to have


original agreement way you assert the integrity of the political space


of Syria as unassailable. That involves the neighbours, Iran,


Turkey, underpinned as guarantors by the great powers, that could bring


some kind of peace, it will be horrible to observe but I can


promise you that every citizen living in Aleppo, trapped between


the bombs of asset and the knives of Isis will prefer peace, however


untidy, to war, I saw it in Sarajevo, it's the same conditions.


Lord Ashton, thanks. Bush Lord Ashdown, thanks.


After a stint as an army doctor, Bashar al-Assad was doing


postgraduate studies at the Western Eye Hospital


in London when he was recalled to Damascus in 1994 after his


brother - and heir apparent to the Syrian Presidency -


Six years later, he succeeded his father to the Presidency


and when ripples from the Arab Spring unfolding


across much of the Middle East reached Syria in early 2011,


his uncompromising response to pro-democracy protesters


effectively constituted the opening shots of what would become


A war he now seems vanishingly close to winning.


It didn't always seem such a sure thing.


Months into the conflict, the UN condemns human rights


violations in Syria with US and EU demands that Assad stands down.


An attempt by the UN Security Council to pass


a resolution condemning the regime fails after Russia


An early peace plan devised by the Arab League also fails.


Amid continuing international condemnation of the regime,


President Obama threatens intervention if there's any use


A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons


By the end of the year, a series of countries including the US,


Britain and some Gulf states formally recognise the opposition


National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.


In August, a chemical assault on a Damascus


The US blames Asad, despite denials by Damascus,


President Obama says he is resolved to take military action but will


In the UK, Parliament defeats proposals by Prime Minister


David Cameron to take action against Assad.


By the end of the year more than two million refugees have fled


to neighbouring countries and more than 100,000 are dead.


Attempts at peace talks in Geneva come to nothing.


And a report by Human Rights Watch concludes that Assad has used


The report suggests Syrian forces dropped by bombs containing


By the end of the year forces from the US and five Arab countries


are carrying out air strikes against IS.


A game changer, Russia gets involved and carries out


air strikes in Syria, targeting IS in September.


However the West and the Syrian opposition claim the attacks


overwhelmingly target anti-Asad rebels.


After another vote, the UK joins bombing raids against IS in December


A US-Russian brokered partial ceasefire was concluded


And now, here we are, with Assad and Russian forces


finally seizing Aleppo's rebel held areas.


We tried to speak to representatives of the Russian and Syrian


governments but no one wanted to talk.


Our Middle East Editor is Jeremy Bowen and joining us


from New York is Reza Afshar, who is a diplomatic advisor


to the Syrian Opposition and former head of Syria policy at the Foreign


The picture painted by Paddy Ashdown was bleak, do you think that Assad


will feel like a winner tonight? He will, at the beginning of the war


there were even reports he had taken refuge on a Russian battleship in


the Mediterranean so to go to this is huge, his biggest victory of the


war but I would say not the end of the war. The war is changing its


shape and perhaps they have now got to a point where they have fought


each other to a standstill, and let's not forget Islamic State still


hold their corner of Syria. They have actually retaken parts of the


mirror in the last few days under the curtain of everything that has


been going on in Aleppo and the Rebels themselves hold quite a bit


of territory. So while a lot of foreign powers are still very


involved in what is happening in Syria, it has become almost like a


miniature world war, it is therefore more difficult to try to bring a


diplomatic solution to all of this. And we saw today in the Security


Council tremendous acrimony between all the sides, they will have to


agree something to get them altogether. And the era of Assad,


would you accept that? I think the Russians have the ear of Assad. If


you go to the offices of generals in Damascus, they're full of textbooks


in Russian about military tactics and commemorative shields from units


they visited in Russia, the kind of thing that senior officers give each


other. They really are that tight. So as a result, not only does tend


to have the era of President Putin and the other way round, the


Russians know who was further down the chain as well when it comes to


Syria. The West, their problem has been a lot more ignorance relatively


speaking with what has been happening and of course the Russians


have had this remarkable, a lot of clarity in their policy. They knew


what they wanted, to support their man, Assad, but the West in


comparison has been all over the place. The western side has shown


the complexity of the issue and been a bit befuddled about what to do


next. The consensus seems to be that while things may not be quite over


yet, perhaps it is the beginning of the end. Would you agree with that?


I would wholeheartedly disagree. The fact that Aleppo is on the brink of


being taken and Assad feels he is winning does not mean that he is


winning. He has to take and hold ground, he does not have the


military capability to hold ground. And we have seen what happens when


forces are focused in one place like Aleppo, other places get taken and


retaken and the moderate rebel groups who in fact were fighting IS


also have to focus their efforts on the regime, killing people on a


day-to-day basis. Because only they are in a position to protect the


civilian population. So we are getting a continual opening up of


fronts all over the country. And I would take issue with something


Paddy Ashdown said earlier, the idea that the West has no leveraged to


deal with the issue is simply wrong. You create that leveraged by


creating consequences for the actions that the Syrian government


and Russians are taking. If you fire a cruise missile from a ship onto


the end of the Syrian runway I think that behaviour would change quite


quickly. The Obama administration could have done that at any point in


the conflict and has chosen not to. You say at any point but up until


the point the Russians got involved surely because to fire a cruise


missile at the Syrian runway being used by Russian planes would be an


act of confrontation. Not at all, with the amount of Assads in the


region, with some clarity we could see which targets have that risk of


hitting Russians and which do not. At the end of the day the Russians


do not respond to negotiation, they respond to a stepping up of military


action. And the Obama administration has failed to do that and I think in


the Security Council it was said today that the Russians should be


ashamed. They ought to be but also the Americans have to answer why


they did not take action to protect civilians in Syria. Do you think


that is likely to happen because they talked about a red line with


the deployment of chemical weaponry, Barack Obama famously said that line


could not be crossed but they did and nothing happened. What has


changed now? I'm not optimistic, I do not think this president will do


anything in that regard. But the point is that there are tools that


can be used to bring the conflict to an end and when Paddy Ashdown talks


about a process like Bosnia, I agree, there needs to be some kind


of negotiation. But what brought the Serbs to the table was when Nato


started to bomb them. At the end of the data has to be chorus of element


to policy in Syria and that is completely missing. That is why


people are suffering and why we face a daily terror threat in Europe and


the US, why there is a refugee exodus tearing apart the fabric of


Europe. Syria touches everyone of us in terms of the consequences it has.


And it is in the US self-interest and European self-interest to take


action to reduce the impact of this conflict. And they have the means to


do it. Thank you very much. When Barack Obama elected not


to intervene in what he saw as another Muslim civil war


in the Middle East, the then Saudi ambassador to Washington,


Adel al-Jubeir, reported back to Riyadh that "Iran


is the new great power of the Middle East,


and the US is the old." Talk of a new world


order traditionally seems a little over the top but if 2016 has taught


us anything, it is that what once seemed fanciful can


quickly become reality. Factor in also that Russia, Iran's


co-sponsor of the Assad regime, subsequently came to play a massive


part in the suppression of the rebellion, and you are left


with a very real sense of a seismic shift in the power structures


of the region and so the world. We asked the historian


Timothy Garton Ash to give us his assessment of where the world


stands as 2016 draws to a close. I think Vladimir Putin


will have a very happy Christmas. In fact, he's been known to croon,


and I think he may be crooning In Syria he has relentlessly


and successfully prosecuted a war at the side of the Assad regime


with cynical indifference to massive civilian casualties and suffering,


and he's almost won. In the United States,


Russian hackers have contributed directly to the defeat of Hillary


Clinton. So Putin has now got the most


Russia-friendly president he could possibly


hope for, in Trump. And now a new Secretary of State,


Rex Tillerson, who is an oilman, a buddy of his, who actually opposed


sanctions over Crimea. In Europe, Putin can contemplate


with delight the rise of populists in every corner and the partial


disintegration of I've just come back from Paris,


where he has an amazing prospect in the second


round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen of the National Front


versus Francois Fillon, the one almost as


pro-Putin as the other. And now in Germany they are talking


about the danger of Russian hackers again influencing


the election results. I think that's been a great


year for Vladimir Putin. So some would say,


is it a new world order? I would say, if you mean


by a new world order an old world disorder,


then at the moment, yes. We're back to a world where great


powers are relentlessly pursuing their national and imperial


interests, also by the use I think one of the lessons of modern


history is that dictatorships tend to win in the short-term,


but democracies win Sir Anthony Brenton


was British Ambassador to Russia. Everyone tonight seems to agree that


Vladimir Putin emerges from this unholy mess greatly enhanced. I


think that is right. The Russians have gone into Syria was a much


clearer view of what they wanted than we did. What did they want?


They had a problem of their own at home, they saw the choice in Syria


as being between Assad, who believe they do not like, and the


alternative is being extremist Islam taking over. And while extremist


Islam is a threat to Russia, really Assad is not so they firmly put


their money on Assad. And they have vigorously supported him through to


the situation we're in now. Much of the covers suggests they have


dedicated more attention to what we could describe as a moderate rebel


-- rebel groups than the actual jihadists or Islamist. I think their


view is that the backbone of the opposition are in fact the


Islamists. So therefore western politicians to say we are backing


the good guys but the core of the opposition and this is pretty clear,


were Islamists. If they're one, even the nice moderate faces put in


charge, this Islamists would rapidly have over. --.


So David Cameron was wrong to talk about moderate leaders that we could


deal with? History was against him, remember the CIA training exercise,


at the time that David Cameron said that, which was designed to produce


moderate soldiers and produced about ten because they all defected to the


extremists when they had trained. So Barack Obama was probably right not


to get involved because if he had done he would not have been able to


pick a side. That's right. We made a huge mistake at the beginning by


saying Assad must go. It then became apparent... What would you have


done? I started my career as an Arabist and I have seen the region


getting worse and worse and I have seen Western interventions on the


whole making it worse rather than better. I was heavily involved in


the Iraq exercise, I watched President Mubarak leaving in Egypt


and in each case it has left the situation worse than before. I am


afraid that this is a region that finally house to solve its own


problems. There's always talk about atrocities, some appalling but in


the absence of any clear ability on the part of the West to improve the


situation rather than damage it, we should be very careful about getting


involved at all. In a slightly different direction, reports that


Russia may have interfered in the election of Donald Trump, with your


background which you have described how important may that story proved


to be? I think it will go away but it is pretty clear that the Russians


did the hacking. It is not clear why they did it. I am not entirely


persuaded that they backed Trump because at the time everyone


expected Hillary Clinton to win and they would not set themselves up


against a winner. It is a sign of a new technological means for Russia


to interfere in our processes and we must equip ourselves for that. Sir


Anthony Brenton, thank you very much.


British politicians remain fiercely divided over


the question of what, if anything, they could


David Cameron's actions are seen as one of the reasons behind Barack


Obama's decision not to intervene. Perhaps the best illustration of how


confusing it was happened two years later when parliament voted in


favour of air strikes on Syria, then the parts of course occupied by ice,


themselves opponents of the Assad regime.


The former Chancellor, George Osborne, told the Commons today


that the tragedy was born of a "vacuum of Western leadership"


and accused Parliament of having "prevented" action by voting


against military intervention against the Assad regime in 2013.


The tragedy in Aleppo did not come out of a vacuum.


It was created by a vacuum, a vacuum of Western


Of American leadership, British leadership.


I take responsibility as someone who sat on the National Security Council


Parliament should take its responsibility


because of what it prevented being done.


And there were multiple opportunities to intervene.


I'm joined now by the Labour MP for Wirral South, Alison McGovern,


and the Times columnist, Matthew Parris.


Matthew, I will begin with you, if I may, it seems that in the world of


politics and journalism there seems great compunction to pick a side,


should we have picked a side sooner and more clearly? I think we picked


the wrong side. I do not think we were in any position to know who the


rebels were and what form of government they might be able to


establish, or how we would underpin that government. I am far from


saying that we should have supported Assad but I am not sure we should


have opposed him. I think we should have stood back. As it turns out


Assad had won. As it turns out he was in a much stronger position than


diplomats, our ambassador said that he would fall within weeks and our


security and intelligence advisers advised us. I think it is a mistake.


I heard George Osborne saying that there were many into opportunities


to intervene, there are but you must know what you are going to do when


you intervene and I don't think we had a clear view of who the rebels


were, which rebels we wanted to win, what sort of government they could


form or whether the West could underpin that government. So we did


not make the mistake that we made in Libya by toppling Gadhafi without


knowing what would follow. Alison McGovern, the question of what we


should do now, what the House of Commons contended with today, it


might have been nicer to see a few more people sitting on the benches,


is it a priority for British politicians, for Theresa May's


government? I want to make it one because I think the kind of events


have seen in Aleppo over the last 24 hours and over months and months are


an offence to basic humanity. I think all of us look at that and


think, it is easy to have a counsel of despair and say that there is


nothing we can do but we do have tools at our disposal. And rather


than seeing this as picking sides, ten years ago we all stood up and


said broadly people in the international community think there


is a responsibility to protect civilians and it is not about one


tactic that can make this happen, it is about a range of things we can


do, whether it is sanctions, diplomacy, judicious use of credible


force to shift the balance of power... Whatever that strategy is,


that is the way that the world should lead, to say that this is not


acceptable. And all people were asking for in the House of Commons


today was for the Foreign Secretary to bring forward such a strategy to


protect civilians and there is a perfect opportunity at the end of


this week with the European Council of the Prime Minister still at this


late stage to show leadership and say, the international community


believes there are certain things that are not right and this is what


we will do to uphold those valleys and offers civilians, people who are


not combatants, innocent victims- Mac those values, and in French and


get them to safety. Russian involvement permitting. Three years


ago, your party worked against intervention and you presumably


voted against. George Osborne effectively suggested today that you


have blood on your hands. First, the Russians have previously signed up,


we are only asking them to do what they said already. And I said in the


House of Commons... George Osborne implied that people like you were


responsible for it. I think he and I agreed in the House that all of our


with our votes come in 2013... Do you accept his analysis and


regret the way that your party whip and its members? It is not a trick


question. I know, let me explain. When the Prime Minister responded to


that vote and said words to the effect of, I get that, what I regret


is that we left it there. Whether or not we were right at that moment,


whether or not the government had proved the case, to be honest with


you, I think you can argue it either way. I regret in my own actions not


challenging them all, not bringing it forward more, but in the end,


David Cameron was the Prime Minister and George Osborne was the


Chancellor, and as he and I agreed today, we all must take our share of


responsibility. Yet even at this late stage I still think we should


be pushing for Britain to take a lead along with our international


partners, and do something. I understand. Matthew, one phrase that


resonated, from Crispin Blunt, the chair of the foreign select


committee, he spoke about being relieved of our imperial intentions,


as he suggested, it was not our fight to get involved in. "Ought". I


agree with Alison entirely, this implies "Can" and there is a limit


to what we can do. I think there was an understanding and there still is


a limit to what we could do. It is probably necessary now that somebody


wins in Aleppo. It cannot carry on like this. Perhaps we can do


something to mitigate whatever harm Assad might do, perhaps we can do


something to protect people but probably somebody has to win and on


balance it is probably better that it is Bashir al-Assad at the moment.


Even though our guest earlier, the refugee now working as a teaching


assistant in a Scottish secondary school, he is clear that he thinks


everyone might end up dead if this continues. I imagine that, whoever


wins, a lot of people will end up dead. I don't think there is any


sense in which anyone can be described as winning best. It is the


most horrific situation. I know what you are trying to say but it is such


a disastrous situation. I do not want to sound cross but it is war,


ugly and bloody and rarely brings about neat resolutions. This is why


Andrew Mitchell and I have said to the House, this is about


international humanitarian law, the rules by which war is governed, any


sense of protecting hospitals, doctors, vulnerable children, that's


gone out of the window in this conflict so of course you are right,


this is a step beyond. If we are to protect hospitals, doctors and


refugees we probably have to protect Isis, whatever we call them,


probably have to bomb the Russians, attacked Russian warplanes, we are


not in a position to get into that. And sadly we are not in possession


of enough time to get into this sort of observation, Matthew Parris,


Alison McGovern, thank you both. We'll leave you with images


from the city of Aleppo, where it seems President Assad's


forces may soon be back Good evening, a mild start to


Wednesday across the board, cloudy for much of England and Wales


although that cloud should melt from the south with good spells of


sunshine coming. It


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