Third Syr­ian safe zone set to open

Rus­sians to have role; Hezbol­lah, al-Qaida branch make swap

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - PHILIP ISSA In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Nataliya Vasi­lyeva of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

BEIRUT — Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry on Thurs­day an­nounced a cease-fire for a third safe zone in war-torn Syria, paving the way for the de­liv­ery of hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief to rebel-held ar­eas north of the city of Homs.

In cen­tral Syria, mean­while, a swap be­tween Le­banon’s mil­i­tant Hezbol­lah group and Syria’s al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate ended with more than 7,000 fight­ers and civil­ians cross­ing into rebel-held parts of north­ern Syria in re­turn for the re­lease of five Le­banese mil­i­tants who ar­rived in govern­ment-held parts of the coun­try.

In re­gard to the cease-fire, mil­i­tary spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Rus­sia would de­ploy mil­i­tary po­lice in the area to­day and set up two check­points and three ob­ser­va­tion points around its borders.

“It’s im­por­tant that peo­ple can live again,” said Mustapha Khaled, an op­po­si­tion ac­tivist work­ing for a me­dia cen­ter for the town of Tal­bisah, in north Homs prov­ince.

It is the third of four planned cease-fires reached in re­cent months un­der an agree­ment bro­kered by Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey in May that aims to “de-es­ca­late” the vi­o­lent and pro­longed Syr­ian civil war.

Rus­sia and Iran are pro­vid­ing mil­i­tary sup­port to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, while Turkey spon­sors some of the op­po­si­tion forces ar­rayed against him.

Pro-govern­ment forces have be­sieged the en­clave north of Homs for years but have been un­able to cap­ture it from the op­po­si­tion even as it re­cov­ered ter­ri­tory else­where.

Shelling and airstrikes against the en­clave have eased since the May agree­ment was signed, Khaled said, mean­ing res­i­dents are ex­pect­ing fur­ther re­lief.

The agree­ment, ac­cord­ing to notes leaked by the Bri­tish-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group, fol­lows the model of an­other cease-fire zone for the sub­urbs of Da­m­as­cus.

Both truces were ne­go­ti­ated in Cairo be­tween Rus­sia and what the De­fense Min­istry de­scribed as the “mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion.”

Aid will be ex­pected to flow again to north Homs, and Rus­sia will man check­points around the en­clave to fa­cil­i­tate the move­ment of civil­ians in and out of the en­clave to re­vi­tal­ize the econ­omy.

The agree­ment also pre­scribes the re­lease of po­lit­i­cal prison­ers, long a de­mand of the op­po­si­tion.

The United Na­tions has long pleaded with the sides in Syria to al­low re­lief to flow to be­sieged ar­eas. It says the par­ties are us­ing food and other ba­sic goods as a weapon of war and that pro-govern­ment forces have been re­spon­si­ble for most of the ob­struc­tion­ism.

The north Homs en­clave holds 147,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the mil­i­tary me­dia arm of Hezbol­lah, a par­tic­i­pant in the con­flict.

The govern­ment’s air force has cut back its at­tacks on the four “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” des­ig­nated in the May agree­ment.

There are still loop­holes for fight­ing, how­ever, char­ac­ter­is­tic of the cease-fires that have come and gone through­out the war. The govern­ment has pounded parts of the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs nom­i­nally cov­ered un­der the cease-fire there, on the grounds that it is tar­get­ing al-Qaida-linked mil­i­tants, as per­mis­si­ble in the agree­ments.

The Ob­ser­va­tory says 170 peo­ple have been killed in the 12 days since the cease­fire there went into ef­fect, call­ing the truce a “fail­ure.” Other such cease-fires have crum­bled un­der the strain of these at­tacks.

Also Thurs­day, a 113-bus con­voy from Le­banon car­ry­ing about 7,700 refugees and al-Qaida-linked mil­i­tants crossed a trans­fer point in the western Syr­ian prov­ince of Hama, into rebel-held Idlib prov­ince in north­west Syria. Idlib is dom­i­nated by a Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate of al-Qaida.

Af­ter sun­set, all the buses had crossed and five Hezbol­lah fight­ers cap­tured by al-Qaida-linked fight­ers last year ar­rived in ar­eas con­trolled by the Syr­ian govern­ment. Hezbol­lah is fight­ing in sup­port of As­sad’s govern­ment in Syria.

The five Hezbol­lah mil­i­tants were to drive sev­eral hours into Le­banon, where a cel­e­bra­tion was be­ing pre­pared to wel­come them in the bor­der vil­lage of Qaa.

The swap was part of an agree­ment struck this week to pro­vide al-Qaida-linked mil­i­tants with safe pas­sage out of Le­banon. About 6,000 Syr­i­ans elected to leave Le­banon with the fight­ers. It fol­lowed two weeks of bat­tles be­tween Hezbol­lah and the Syr­ian govern­ment on the one side and the al-Qaida-linked mil­i­tants on the other, along the fron­tier be­tween Le­banon and Syria.

AP/Hawar News Agency

This frame grab from video re­leased Thurs­day and pro­vided by Hawar News Agency, a Syr­ian Kur­dish ac­tivist-run me­dia group, shows a fighter from the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fir­ing his weapon dur­ing clashes with Is­lamic State group fight­ers in the north­ern city of Raqqa, Syria.

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