Syrian rebel fighters evacuated from Homs en masse
Rebel fighters and their families have begun leaving their last bastion in the Syrian city of Homs under a Russian-backed deal with the government expected to be among the largest evacuations of its kind. The agreement underlines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s upper hand in the war, as more militants opt to leave in deals that amount to negotiated withdrawals to other parts of the country.
Several buses drove out of the al-Waer district in Homs, which was an early centre of the popular uprising against President Assad. Between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels and civilians would evacuate in batches over the coming weeks under the deal, according to opposition activists in al-Waer and war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based war monitor said the buses would go to the Jarablus area held by Turkey-backed rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside.
Syrian state television said that under the agreement, fighters could stay in al-Waer if they handed over their weapons and settled their affairs with the government. Homs governor Talal Barazi said he expected 1,500 people to depart on Saturday for rebel-held areas north-east of Aleppo, and that most of al-Waer’s residents would stay.
- Up to 15,000 rebel militants and their families to leave Homs in coming weeks
- Opposition groups say evacuation deal is ‘forcible displacement’
- Rebels head for areas controlled by Turkey
Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks, he added.
“The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things will go well,” Governor Barazi said. “The first stage is expected to move up to 500 rebels with their families to the countryside of Aleppo [province].”
The Syrian government described such deals as a “workable model” that would bring the country closer to peace after six years of conflict.
But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Mr Assad after years of bombardment and siege.
Assad calls evacuation deals the ‘real’ solution
Governor Barazi said there was communication with other rebel-held areas north of Homs city to reach similar deals. “We are optimistic that the full exit of armed [fighters] from this district will pave the way for other reconciliations and settlements,” he said.
The government has increasingly tried to press besieged rebel areas to surrender and accept what it calls reconciliation agreements.
In an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix last week, Mr Assad said deals brokered locally with rebels were “the real political solutions”. He added that he had not expected anything from Geneva, where UN-led peace talks ended this month with no breakthrough.
The latest deal follows others that were never fully implemented between the government and rebel groups in al-Waer, which has been pounded by air strikes in recent weeks. A few hundred rebels from the district have previously been allowed safe passage to Idlib in the northwest.
Militants and civilians have poured into Idlib at an accelerating rate over the last year, bussed out of other parts of western Syria that the government and allied forces recaptured from rebels.
Rebel groups have been on the back foot in Syria, following Russia’s intervention in the war on Bashar al-Assad’s side, bringing its air power to bear in support of his army and its Iranian and Shi’ite militia allies. The wide array of mostly Sunni rebel factions includes jihadists as well as some groups supported by the United States, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies.
1,500 Syrian rebels, families are first to leave under ceasefire and evacuation plan for opposition stronghold in city of Homs, RT.com, Mar 18, 2017 (with video)
U.S airstrike kills 46 in strike against mosque in northern Syria
The U.S. has said it carried out an airstrike in Syria against an al-Qaida meeting but denied deliberately targeting a mosque where 46 people were reportedly killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the dead were civilians in the Thursday evening raid on the village of Al-Jineh, in the northern province of Aleppo.
The U.S. has been bombing jihadists in war-torn Syria as part of an international coalition [sic] since 2014, with hundreds of civilians unintentionally killed in the country and in neighbouring Iraq.
“We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about 50ft (15 metres) from a mosque that is still standing,” said Col John J Thomas, spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
According to a Centcom statement: “U.S. forces conducted an air strike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists.” The Centcom spokesman later clarified that the precise location of the strike was unclear – but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province. “We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he added.
The U.S.-led coalition striking the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria did not mention the raid in its daily roundup for Thursday, indicating that the strike was carried out unilaterally by the U.S.
An AFP correspondent saw rescue workers in white helmets working under spotlights with picks and shovels late on Thursday to dig people out of the rubble. Much of the building, identified by a black placard outside as a mosque, had been flattened. The empty prayer hall was covered in debris, and rescue workers stepped through it carefully, deliberating about how to break down a wall to search for more survivors.
Fearing additional airstrikes, weekly Friday prayers were cancelled in towns and villages across northern Syria, AFP’s correspondent said.
Rescuers had earlier left the wreckage site but were forced to double back when they heard moaning coming from the rubble. “More than 100 people were wounded,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said on Thursday, adding that many were still trapped under the collapsed mosque in Al-Jineh, just over 30km (20 miles) west of Aleppo.
The village is held by Islamist groups, but the Observatory said no jihadist factions are present.
Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he “heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it. “I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognise some of the bodies,” he added.
The strike was condemned by the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which said targeting mosques was a war crime under international law.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests six years ago. A ceasefire between government forces and non-jihadist rebel groups was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia in December, but violence has continued.
The skies over Aleppo province are busy, with Syrian regime and Russian warplanes as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft carrying out strikes.
Russia began a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and in the past has dismissed allegations of civilian deaths in its strikes.
The U.S.-led coalition said earlier this month that its raids in Iraq and Syria had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians since 2014. Critics say the real number is much higher.
Israel has also carried out airstrikes elsewhere in Syria. Before dawn on Friday, its warplanes hit several targets near the famed desert city of Palmyra, prompting retaliatory missiles launches, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war started in 2011.
The Syrian army said it had downed one Israeli plane and hit another but the Israeli military insisted the safety of its aircraft had not been compromised.
Israel said it intercepted one missile. Jordanian military sources said missile shrapnel struck in the north of the kingdom without causing any casualties.
Pentagon denies bombing Syrian mosque in Syria on March 16, but its own photo may prove that it did, Alex Emmons, The Intercept, March 17, 2017