Posts Tagged ‘Idlib’

Military leaders from Iran, Turkey meet to discuss Syria, Kurds, and counter-terrorism

August 16, 2017

ANKARA — Turkish and Iranian military leaders held talks on Wednesday over cooperation in the Syrian conflict and counter-terrorism, officials said, during a rare visit to NATO-member Turkey by the Islamic Republic’s military chief of staff.

Turkey’s ties with Washington have been strained by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the visit by Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri is the latest sign that Ankara is increasing cooperation with other powers such as Iran and Russia.

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Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri (R) in Ankara to hold talks with a number of high-ranking Turkish officials on cooperation in settling the crises in Syria and Iraq and other issues

Baqeri met his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday and Turkey’s Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli on Wednesday in what Turkish media said was the first visit by an Iranian chief of staff since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

He was due to meet President Tayyip Erdogan later on Wednesday.

Turkey and Iran have supported rival sides in Syria’s six-year-old conflict, with Iran-backed fighters helping President Bashar al-Assad to drive back rebels battling to overthrow him, including some supported by Ankara.

Turkey is concerned that the Syrian chaos has empowered Kurdish forces who it says are closely tied to the long-running insurgency in its southeastern regions, as well as Islamic State fighters who have waged attacks inside Turkey, and is working with Iran and Russia to reduce the fighting in some areas.

An Iranian source said Baqeri was accompanied by the head of the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s most powerful security entity.

“There have been no such visits between the two countries for a long time, but considering regional developments and security issues – border security and the fight against terrorism – there was a need for such a visit,” Baqeri told Iranian state television on arrival on Tuesday.

The Iranian source said that, in addition to the war in Syria, the two sides would discuss the conflict in Iraq as well as dealing with Kurdish militants in the Turkish-Iranian border region, where Turkish media say Turkey has started building a frontier wall.

RUSSIAN MILITARY CHIEF

Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed in May to set up “de-escalation zones” in Syria to try to stem the fighting in some parts of the country, including the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey and has since been overrun by jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate.

That has thrown into question any suggestion that the three countries could deploy a force to police the Idlib region.

“The negotiations regarding the Idlib issue are still ongoing,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish broadcaster TRT Haber on Wednesday.

“After the Iranian chief of staff, the Russian chief of staff will also come to Turkey,” he added.

Turkey has said for months that it is close to buying an S-400 missile defense system from Russia, and Erdogan said in July that the deal had already been signed.

Cavusoglu said Russia understood Turkey’s sensitivities about arming Kurdish fighters better than the United States, although he said U.S. officials had informed Turkey that the most recent shipments to the YPG did not include guns.

“The United States gives us reports about how many weapons they have given to the YPG every month,” he said. The latest “said they gave armored vehicles and a bulldozer, but no guns.”

Turkey’s stepped-up military talks with Iran and Russia coincide with a major oil and gas deal involving firms from the three countries.

The Turkish firm Unit International said this week it has signed a $7 billion agreement with Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft and Iran’s Ghadir Investment Holding to drill for oil and natural gas in Iran.

Turkey is also discussing transporting more goods through Iran to the Gulf state of Qatar, which is locked in a dispute with its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alister Doyle)

Seven Syrian Rescue Volunteers — “White Helmets” — Killed in Shooting

August 12, 2017

BEIRUT — Seven volunteers with the Syrian civil defense rescue service were killed in a shooting by unidentified attackers in rebel-held Idlib province on Saturday, the civil defense said on its Twitter feed.

The attackers stole two vehicles and other equipment in the incident targeting a civil defense office in the town of Sarmin at dawn. Idlib province in northwestern Syria is controlled by Syrian rebels groups.

The civil defense, otherwise known as the “White Helmets”, operates in rebel-held areas of Syria.

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by David Evans)

US-backed Syrian fighters win strategic victory near Raqqa

August 12, 2017

France 24 and The Associated Press

© DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP | A fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, some 50 kilometres north of Raqqa.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-08-12

US-backed Syrian fighters advancing on the Islamic State group from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa have linked up for the first time since launching their offensive on IS’ de facto capital, officials said Friday.

Though the development marked a significant milestone in the battle for the IS stronghold, a USmilitary spokesman cautioned that there is still tough fighting ahead before Raqqa is completely taken from the militants.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, under the cover of US-backed coalition airstrikes, launched a wide offensive to capture the city on June 6 and have managed so far to take about half the city.

The linkup of the eastern and western fronts deprives IS from access to the Euphrates River — and effectively leaves the remaining militants in Raqqa and thousands of civilians surrounded.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said there remains still tough fighting ahead and that although the linkup of the Syrian opposition fighters’ east and west axis on the southern edge of Raqqa was significant, this does not in fact cut the city in two.

Dillon told The Associated Press in an email that the significance is that the SDF, despite IS’ best efforts, have successfully battled across the entire city from both sides and have joined forces. The US spokesman said this shows the steady progress the SDF fighters are making against IS in the militants’ self-declared capital.

“The fighting is ongoing from room to room and from house to house,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media center. Bali also confirmed that SDF fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city have met up.

Bali said by telephone from northern Syria that the key difficulty facing advancing SDF fighters is to avoid striking civilians used by IS as human shields.

“A VERY DIFFICULT SITUATION FOR CIVILIANS” – FRANCE 24 MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT ADAM PLETTS

A ‘milestone’

The top US envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, tweeted about the linkup of the two fronts, describing it as a “milestone” that is tightening the noose around IS.

Also Friday, neighboring Turkey introduced new regulations at a border crossing with northwestern Syria, allowing only the transport of humanitarian aid, after an al-Qaida-linked group took control of the Syrian post.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after Friday prayers in Istanbul that the Cilvegozu crossing in southern Turkey would remain open for food, medicine and some supplies to go across. Turkey’s Cilvegozu stands across from the Bab al-Hawa in Syria’s Idlib province.

The al-Qaida-linked militant group Levant Liberation Committee captured the crossing after battles with the ultraconservative Syrian rebel Ahrar al-Sham group last month.

Erdogan said Turkey “cannot allow the passage of weapons,” suggesting humanitarian aid has “practically turned into an armament process.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported a three-kilometer tailback at the Oncupinar border crossing, located further east, after trucks were rerouted from Cilvegozu.

Meanwhile, the UN migration agency said Friday that over 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned to their homes this year, citing an increasing trend of returns while warning the situation remains “not sustainable.”

International Organisation for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon said the 602,759 returns between January and July was on track to surpass the figure of 685,000 returns for all of 2016.

But she also cautioned about the huge number of displaced Syrians this year — nearly 809,000.

IOM said that its partner agencies have found that two-thirds of the returnees have gone to the northern Aleppo governorate, where government forces ousted rebels from the city of Aleppo last year.

A third of the returnees said they went back to “protect their assets” while one-quarter cited “improved economic conditions,” IOM said.

(AP)

U.S. Says ‘Grave’ Consequences if Syria’s Al Qaeda Dominates Idlib Province

August 3, 2017

AMMAN — The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

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Civil defence team members extinguish a fire after an airstrike hit Idlib, Syria on 27 April 2017 [Bilal Baioush/Anadolu Agency]

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war.

“In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said.

Mainly Islamist rebels swept through Idlib province in 2015, inflicting a string of defeats on the Syrian army until Russia stepped in to reverse the tide of the civil war in favour of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria, among them one in Idlib province.

Many locals fear the jihadists’ hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by Russian and Syrian forces and turn it into another devastated Aleppo or Mosul.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become an overcrowded refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families.

Fighters from the former Jabhat al-Nusra -- since renamed and part of the group in control of Idlib -- pictured in Aleppo in 2016.

“JOLANI AND HIS GANG”

“Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

In less than three days Jolani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

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An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.”

He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains.

The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Syrian jihadists now control Idlib near Turkey border crossing

July 23, 2017

AMMAN — Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate consolidated their grip over large parts of the northwestern province of Idlib on Sunday after their main rival evacuated a major border crossing with Turkey, rebels and residents said.

Members Jaish al Fateh Takfiri front guard a checkpoint in Idlib city, Syria, on July 18, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

Members Jaish al Fateh Takfiri front guard a checkpoint in Idlib city, Syria, on July 18, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

Witnesses said the departing militants, of the Ahrar al Sham group, had moved a large convoy of heavy equipment and tanks and hundreds of its fighters away from the Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey and had headed to areas it controls further south in Idlib province and in the neighboring province of Hama.

Their pullout was stipulated under terms of a ceasefire deal reached on Friday following three days of heavy fighting that had pitted Ahrar al Sham, a powerful rebel group with a foothold across Syria, against Hayat Tahrir al Sham, an alliance led by al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

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The al Qaeda-linked militants surrounded the other rebels near the Syria-Turkey border crossing after rapid advances in a strategic stretch of territory along the border with Turkey and after pushing ouut their rivals from main towns and villages in the province.

The fighting between the two largest rebel groups that left scores of dead and injured was by far the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

DIVISIONS

President Bashar al Assad’s armed opponents have long been bitterly divided by regional rivalries, over their ties to foreign states and ideological battles over whether to pursue Syrian national or Sunni jihadist goals.

Tensions have been building between Idlib province’s two biggest insurgent factions mainly over ideological differences between Islamist militant and more nationalist-leaning armed factions.

They have also vied for dominance in the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control.

The pullout of Ahrar from the border crossing of Bab al Hawa, which it had controlled for over three years and which was a major source of revenue, is a big blow for the group.

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Border crossing at Bab al Hawa

The ceasefire deal stipulated it would be run by a civil administration in a power-sharing agreement.

Ahrar has also been hit by the defection of hundreds of its fighters to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Several other units have handed over ammunition and weapons depots to the jihadists and decided to disband.

Rebel fighting has weakened the Syrian opposition since the start of the uprising against Assad in 2011. Their turf wars have helped Assad and his allies recover significant ground in the north and around the capital Damascus.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Scores of Syrians killed in attack on evacuation bus convoy

April 15, 2017

An explosion has killed at least 39 people awaiting evacuation from the government-held towns of Foua and Kfraya. The blast came as evacuation efforts stalled throughout the night.

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A suspected car bomb tore through a crowd of people at a transit point for Syrians waiting to be transferred out of the two government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. Estimates put the death toll at between 39 and 43. Syria’s state news agency SANA said that most of the victims were women and children.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which is based in the UK but has a number of sources on the ground, reported the explosion occurred at Rashidin, located west of Aleppo. Several buses were reportedly waiting to take thousands of people, mainly Shiite residents, away from the besieged areas as part of an evacuation deal.

Pro-government media outlets and pro-opposition activists corroborated the event. A Syrian military media unit run by Hezbollah said that it was a suicide attacker who had detonated the car bomb.

Syrian state TV said an unknown number of people had been killed and wounded.

Mindestens 16 Tote bei Bombenanschlag auf Busse in Syrien (Reuters)The number of casualties from the blast is expected to rise

Exhausted evacuees

Syrian state media showed images of plumes of smoke, charred buses and dead bodies on the ground after the explosion. It is assumed that the casualties were mainly local Shiite residents hoping to leave government-controlled areas on the evacuation bus scheme, which in return would see hundreds of Sunni insurgents moved out of government-besieged areas near Damascus.

A delay in the execution of the agreement left nearly all of the evacuees on both sides stuck at the two transit points overnight before the blast occurred. Exhaustion on part of the evacuees made the emergency response measures more difficult. Prior to the explosion, Syrian Red Crescent teams distributed meals to the evacuees stuck in the buses after having left their homes over 30 hours earlier.

Controversial deals

The agreement, brokered by Iran and Qatar, is one of a number of deals signed in recent months that has led to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining control of many previously besieged areas again. Opposition groups in Syria say, however, that these evacuation deals have resulted in the forced displacement of Assad’s opponents in the west of the country.

The United Nations says that more than 640,000 people live in besieged locations across Syria.

ss/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

http://www.dw.com/en/scores-of-syrians-killed-in-attack-on-evacuation-bus-convoy/a-38438389

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Syria car bombing kills at least 16 evacuees

April 15, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Syrians wait in rebel-held Rashidin, west of Aleppo city, following delays in evacuating them, on April 15, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – A suicide car bombing killed at least 16 people Saturday in an attack near buses for Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, targeted residents evacuated from the northern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya under a deal reached between the regime and rebels.

An AFP reporter in Rashidin saw several bodies, body parts and blood scattered on the ground.

State television said the car bombing had been carried out by “terrorist groups”, a term the regime applies to all armed opposition groups.

It was not immediately clear if rebels at the transit point were among the dead.

The attack took place as thousands of evacuees from the besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya waited to continue their journey to regime-controlled Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia, or Damascus.

More than 5,000 people who had lived under crippling siege for more than two years left the two towns, along with 2,200 evacuated from rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani, on Friday.

They were headed for regime or rebel-held areas via government-held second city Aleppo.

Thousands of evacuees from Fuaa and Kafraya were stuck on the road in rebel-held Rashidin, west of Aleppo, when the bomb went off.

The evacuation, brokered by regime ally Iran and rebel backer Qatar, is set to see more than 30,000 people evacuated in two stages.

The deal had stipulated that in the first stage 8,000 people, including 2,000 loyalist fighters, leave the two towns but in the event just 5,000, including 1,300 fighters left, the Britain-based Observatory said.

But evacuees had been stranded as differences emerged over the number of loyalist fighters, a rebel source said, refusing to elaborate as “negotiations are under way.”

Thousands of evacuees from Madaya and Zabadani were also stuck in government-controlled Ramusa, south of Aleppo.

The deal to evacuate the towns was the latest in a string of such agreements, touted by the government as the best way to end the fighting. Rebels say they have been forced out by siege and bombardment.

The regime has retaken several key rebel strongholds including eastern Aleppo since a Russian military intervention in September 2015.

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Assad’s Syria has a chemical weapons stockpile of over two thousand tons; Says ‘We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history’

April 15, 2017

Syrian regime has ‘at least 2,000 tonnes’ of chemical weapons hidden away, says Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat

The Independent Online
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Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad deceived United Nations inspectors and still has “hundreds of tonnes” of lethal chemicals stockpiled, the country’s former weapons research chief has said.

In 2014, Syria said it had handed over all of its chemical weapons to the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). At the time, Barack Obama said the stockpile had been “100 per cent eliminated”.

But Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat has told The Telegraph that Assad’s regime did not declare large amounts of sarin and other toxic weapons.

“They [the regime] admitted only to 1,300 tonnes, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that,” said General Sakat, who had been one of the most senior figures in the country’s chemical weapons programme. “They had at least 2,000 tonnes. At least.”

General Sakat said he believes the remaining stockpile in Syria could include several hundred tonnes of sarin, along with other chemicals, aerial bombs that can be filled with chemicals, and also chemical warheads for Scud missiles.

A former commander of the British military’s chemical weapons unit, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who now advises Syrian NGOs on chemical weapons, described General Sakat’s claims as plausible.

Assad’s government has been blamed for a suspected sarin gas attack in Idlib province last week in which killed almost 90 people.

The attack prompted a retaliatory attack by the US against a Syrian air base, which has sparked heightened tensions between Syria’s Russian backers and the US.

But Assad has said the allegation that his government was responsible for the attack was “100 per cent fabrication”, and this week said once again that his government was not in possession of any chemical weapons.

“We gave up our arsenal three years ago,” Assad said in an interview this week. “Even if we have them we wouldn’t use them. We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.”

“The United States is hand in glove with the terrorists,” he added.

Turkish and British scientists have both said they have found positive results in tests for the nerve agent sarin, a toxin that rebel groups in Syria are not known to possess.

Kenneth Ward, the US ambassador to OPWC, has also insisted Syria was hiding stocks of chemical weapons “abetted by Russia’s continuing efforts to bury the truth”.

General Sakat said he doesn’t believe Assad will give up any remaining chemical weapons.

“He will not let go of the chemical weapons while he is leader of Syria.”

“If he is forced to leave, he might confess to where some of it is hidden only so it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bashar-al-assad-chemical-weapons-attack-stockpile-syria-obama-trump-moscow-a7684706.html

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 (What should we think about the Iran nuclear deal?)

Kerry and Lavrov. John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in 2013. They engineered a deal to remove all chemical weapons from Syria. They both played pivotal roles in the Iran nuclear deal.  AP photo

kerry lavrov

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry react during a joint news conference after their meeting in Moscow, May 7, 2013.Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

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US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, September 2013 (photo credit: AP/Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

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Secretary of State John Kerry, (r.), speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, (c.), in Geneva, Switzerland, in January, 2014. The pair were scheduled to meet in New York to participate in a conference at the United Nations on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA

Residents, fighters evacuate from four besieged Syria towns

April 14, 2017

AFP

The city of Idlib, Syria has been preparing for the arrival of evacuees from opposition-controlled Zabadani

BEIRUT (AFP) – Civilians and fighters began evacuating four towns besieged by rebels and government forces Friday under a deal brokered by opposition backer Qatar and regime ally Iran, an AFP correspondent and a local source said.An AFP correspondent in rebel-held Rashidin, west of Aleppo city, said at least 80 buses arrived in the region from government-held Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib province?. A rebel source in Idlib told AFP “the implementation of the deal started in the morning”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the beginning of the evacuation.

Madaya resident Amjad al-Maleh, who spoke to AFP on the phone from one of the buses leaving opposition-controlled Madaya and Zabadani at around 6:00 am (0300 GMT), said: “We just left now, around 2,200 persons in around 65 buses”.

More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal, which began on Wednesday with an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces.

All 16,000 residents of Fuaa and Kafraya are expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus. Civilian residents of Madaya and Zabadani will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose.

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© AFP file photo | A Syrian army barricade on the outskirts of Madaya.

Syrian Deal to Evacuate Tens of Thousands of People Begins

BEIRUT — The Syrian government and the opposition have begun a coordinated population swap of tens of thousands of people from four besieged towns.

Activists including the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said buses carrying rebels began leaving the rebel-held towns Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus on Friday morning in the first phase of the deal, which will also see the evacuation of residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria.

Dozens of buses entered the areas Wednesday but by late Thursday people had not boarded them, according to opposition activists in the rebel-held towns.

If the evacuations are completed, they would be the first in number of rounds stretching over two months to evacuate some 30,000 Syrians from besieged areas, in a deal struck by rebels and the government.

Russian jets drop incendiary bombs in Syria’s Idlib, Hama

April 10, 2017

Reuters

Syrian or Russian warplanes dropped incendiary bombs on areas of Idlib and Hama provinces just days after a deadly gas attack in the region, activists and a monitoring group reported on Monday.

Moscow and the Syrian army were not immediately available for comment.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian jets had used an incendiary substance called thermite in bombs they dropped over the towns of Saraqeb in Idlib and al-Latamenah in Hama, further south, on Saturday and Sunday.

A rescue worker in Saraqeb said warplanes had dropped phosphorus bombs there, but he had not heard of the use of thermite. He said use of phosphorus was not a new development.

“It’s normal, these are often used,” said Laith Abdullah of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a rescue group working in rebel-held areas.

Videos posted on social media purportedly from Saraqeb on Sunday showed flaming materials hitting the ground and spreading large fires.

The Observatory said thermite had first been used in the Syrian conflict in June 2016 by the Syrian government.

The bombings came after the United States launched cruise missiles at an air base in western Syria on Friday. The missile strike was a response to what Washington said was a gas attack by Syrian warplanes in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib that killed scores.

Syria denies using chemical substances and denies it carried out the attack.

The Observatory reported Syrian warplanes took off from the same air base less than a day after the U.S. attack and carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Larry King)