Syrian Rebel Groups Begin Withdrawing Weapons From Idlib

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Free Idlib Army and Failaq al-Sham are removing artillery and mortar pieces from the area

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Syrian rebel fighters prepare their heavy artillery in the Syrian village in the northern countryside of Hama on September 17, 2018.
Syrian rebel fighters prepare their heavy artillery in the Syrian village in the northern countryside of Hama on September 17, 2018.Credit: AFP

Two Syrian rebel groups began withdrawing their heavy weapons Saturday from a northwestern area of the country where Russia and Turkey have agreed to set up a demilitarized zone, opposition activists said.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Free Idlib Army and Failaq al-Sham started removing artillery and mortar pieces from areas close to the town of Maaret al-Numan.

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A Syrian rebel fighter from National Liberation Front takes part in combat training in Idlib on September 11, 2018.Credit: AFP

The Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) rebel alliance said in a statement the process of withdrawing heavy weapons had begun, but the fighters would remain in their positions within the demilitarized zone.

The NFL statement said the Syrian rebels would remain within the demilitarized zone to assist Turkish troops monitoring and patrolling the area.

A rebel group commander told Reuters the NFL will extract heavy weaponry - such as rocket launchers and artillery vehicles - and bring it 12 miles (20 km) from the contact line between insurgents in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province and government forces.

“Light and medium weapons and heavy machine guns up to 57 mm will remain in place,” the official said.

Bassam Haji Mustafa, a senior official with the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group, which is part of the NLF, said the withdrawal of heavy weapons began two days ago.

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The Turkey-Russia deal was agreed last month to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian government forces on the area and calls for the removal of all members of Syrian radical groups from the demilitarized zone. It also calls for the removal of tanks, armored personnel carriers and rebel artillery weapons form the area.

Under the deal, “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of this month from the zone, and heavy weaponry must be withdrawn by October 10.

The demilitarized zone will cover a stretch of about 15-20 kilometers, about 9-12 miles, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols in the zone.

Last month, two jihadi groups in Idlib — the Al-Qaida-linked Horas al-Din, Arabic for Guardians of Religion, and Ansar al-Din, Arabic for Partisans of Religion — rejected the deal calling it a "great conspiracy" against insurgents.

However, the largest militant group in Idlib, the Al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, has not yet announced its position regarding the demilitarized zone.

Earlier Saturday, an explosive device detonated in a northern town held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killing four people, including two children.

The Observatory said the car bomb went off at the entrance to the industrial district of the town of Azaz.

It added that the explosion occurred near a tanker filled with fuel, causing a fire.

The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, also reported four people killed including two children, adding that the explosion occurred inside a shop that sells fuel.

Car bombs have been common since Syria's conflict began in 2011.

Northern Syria has been fraught with clashes between rival insurgent groups including al-Qaida-linked militants and Turkey-backed rebels.

On Friday, clashes broke out between Al-Qaida-linked HTS and Turkey-backed Nour el-Din el-Zinki group in Aleppo province but the situation was calm on Saturday after the two groups reached a deal, according to activists.

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