Syria rebels hand over arms in new deal with government

Syrian rebels and civilians prepare to be evacuated from the town of Yalda on the southern outskirts of Damascus on May 3 under a negotiated withdrawal. (AFP)
Updated 04 May 2018
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Syria rebels hand over arms in new deal with government

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels on Friday were surrendering their heavy weapons for the second day after agreeing with the government a new deal to withdraw from central towns, a war monitor said.
Opposition fighters agreed with regime forces and their allies to a cease-fire deal earlier this week for the rebel towns of Talbisseh, Rastan, and Al-Houla, which fall in Syria’s central province of Homs.
“The fighters are handing over their heavy and intermediate weapons to Russian and regime forces for the second consecutive day,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
It included artillery and machine guns, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory.
“Once the handovers are finished, the rebels who want to leave will be evacuated out with civilians,” Abdel Rahman said.
The deal for the three rebel-controlled towns follows a similar pattern to other agreements recently reached across Syria, mostly around Damascus.
Rebels and civilians will be granted safe passage to the rebel-held town of Jarabulus, in Aleppo province, and the neighboring province of Idlib which largely escapes government control, according to state news agency SANA.
It said the deal also provided for the return of government institutions to the three towns and the reopening of a key highway.
That highway runs from the capital Damascus, through Homs, and onto second city Aleppo, in the north. Securing it has been a major target for the regime’s military operations.
The three towns were part of a “de-escalation zone” agreed one year ago by opposition supporter Turkey and regime allies Iran and Russia.
The total of four zones initially saw a reduction in shelling but violence has since escalated.
One of them, Eastern Ghouta, was recaptured last month by the Syrian government after a blistering two-month offensive that ended in forced evacuations of rebels and civilians there.
Jaish Al-Izza, one rebel faction present in the Homs area where a deal was reached, has said it rejects the agreement and pledged to remain deployed on its front lines.
It is the third such transfer deal for Homs province, after thousands were bused out in a pair of agreements for the city itself.


Militants kidnap Christian in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

Police pursued the kidnappers into the desert to which they fled after the incident. (AP)
Updated 20 min 21 sec ago
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Militants kidnap Christian in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

  • The attack took place about 30 km west of El-Arish

CAIRO: Extremist militants on Thursday kidnapped a Christian man traveling in a taxi in the turbulent north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, according to security officials, an incident that raises the specter of renewed attacks on minority Christians in the region after a two-year lull.

The officials did not identify the man, but said police pursued the kidnappers into the desert to which they fled after the incident, killing one of them and wounding two others in a firefight, but could not free the hostage. Two policemen were also wounded in the firefight, said the officials.

There was no word on whether any of the other passengers traveling in the taxi, a minibus, were harmed, suggesting that the kidnapping of the Christian man could have been planned. 

The attack took place about 30 km west of El-Arish, northern Sinai’s largest city, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

A spate of attacks on Christians in northern Sinai in late 2016 and early 2017 forced nearly 300 families to flee their homes there and find refuge elsewhere in Egypt. 

Those killed included a cleric, workers, a doctor and a merchant. The last Christian to be killed in Sinai was in January 2018, when militants gunned him down as he walked on the street in El-Arish.

The militants, now led by Daesh, say they are punishing the Christians for their support of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

The spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, whose ancient church is the country’s predominant Christian denomination, is a close ally of El-Sisi, who has made sectarian harmony a cornerstone of his domestic policy. 

El-Sisi’s patronage of the community has given Christians a measure of protection but did little to protect them from radicals, particularly in regions south of Cairo where Christians are a sizable minority.

Since 2016, Daesh militants have killed more than 100 Christians in attacks targeting churches and buses carrying pilgrims to remote desert monasteries. 

Also on Thursday, according to the officials, suspected militants sneaked into the parking lot of the main hospital in the city of Rafah on the Sinai border with the Gaza Strip and torched two vehicles before escaping. 

The incident was the latest in a recent spate of violent incidents in Rafah, most of whose residents have been evicted and compensated over the past year to deny the militants hiding places.

Nearly a year ago, the government threw into the battle against the Sinai militants thousands of troops, heavy armor, helicopter gunships and jet fighters in a bid to end the insurgency. 

The operation has significantly reduced the number of attacks and restored a near total normal life in El-Arish, on the Mediterranean coast.