Regime retakes full control of central Syria as rebels evacuate

Members of the Russian Military Police stand on the highway extending from Harasta in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. The Syrian government has reconquered swathes of territory it lost with Iranian and Russian support. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2018
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Regime retakes full control of central Syria as rebels evacuate

RASTAN, Syria: The Syrian government retook full control of central Syria on Wednesday as rebels and their relatives were evacuated from final pockets of territory still outside the regime’s grasp, an AFP correspondent reported.
The evacuations from areas straddling the boundary between Homs and Hama provinces came under a deal between rebel factions and the government.
Hundreds of people gathered in the center of the town of Rastan in Homs province to welcome the return of government security forces and attend a flag-raising ceremony on the main square.
Nearby towns and villages in the areas of Talbiseh and Al-Hula were also evacuated, the official SANA news agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.
“The last convoy of terrorists and their families exits northern Homs province and southern Hama province,” SANA reported.
The armed factions, which the government systematically refers to as “terrorists,” were transferred to Idlib province, which still largely escapes regime control.
A total of 34,500 people — armed men and their families — were transferred out of the area as part of the deal, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
“As of today, there is not one gunman left, no weapons left in the whole of Homs province,” the province’s governor, Talal Barazai, said in Rastan.
Pockets of jihadists from the Daesh group are however still thought to be active on the province’s scarcely-populated far eastern edge.
The governor vowed that the Damascus-Hama highway would reopen “in the coming days.”
With Iranian and Russian support, the Syrian government has reconquered swathes of territory it lost following the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.
Government and allied forces have almost finished retaking areas around the capital Damascus that had been held by jihadist and militant groups for year.
They have yet to seize back a small pocket still controlled by Daesh in southern Damascus, as well as a large part of the southern Daraa province and much of Idlib, in the northwest.
A large part of northern and eastern Syria is controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces who also fought against IS but want a level of autonomy that the regime refuses.
More than half of Syria 20-million-plus pre-war population has been displaced by the seven-year-old conflict, which the Observatory says has killed more than 350,000 people.


Border opening ‘too little, too late’ for besieged Gazans

Palestinian passengers wait to cross the border to the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing with Egypt, in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. AP
Updated 25 sec ago
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Border opening ‘too little, too late’ for besieged Gazans

  • Egypt has supported the blockade because it fears that an open crossing at Rafah will allow Hamas to provide direct support to the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Gaza is home to about 2 million people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world

RAFAH: Long lines of weary Gazans waiting to cross into Egypt this week say they hold little hope the border’s brief opening for Ramadan will significantly reduce pressure on the strip.

Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, ordered the crossing at Rafah to be temporarily opened as a gesture of goodwill to “ease the burden” on Gaza.
But for the Palestinians enduring a crippling 11-year land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and supported by Cairo, the move is too little, too late. Many want to get out of Gaza and never come back.
Mahmood Al-Amoudi was waiting at the crossing with his wife and two daughters. He hoped to be allowed through so he could continue on and stay with his brother in Sweden.
“We live here like slaves. Nobody cares about us, even when we travel. I have been trying to travel for a week and although the crossing is open, traffic is slow,” the 37-year-old told Arab News.
“I had an argument about this with my wife: Do we have to live outside Palestine? Finally, we decided that we cannot continue living here in the Gaza Strip under such harsh conditions.”

Easing tensions
The Palestinian Ministry of Information in Gaza said the total number of people to have crossed Rafah into Egypt in the first 10 days since the opening on May 12 stood at 4,277.
According to reports in the Palestinian media, Egypt hopes that by opening the Rafah crossing it can ease escalating tensions between Gaza’s population and Israel following weeks of protests against the occupation.
At least 114 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured on the strip’s border with Israel since mass protests began there on March 30. The worst of the violence came on May 14, when 60 people were killed on the same day that the new US embassy was opened in Jerusalem.
Gaza is home to about 2 million people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Residents receive just four hours of electricity a day and the economy is in recession.
Israel imposed its blockade after Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, following the Islamist group’s shock victory in legislative elections a year earlier and bloody clashes with its rival Fatah.
Since El-Sisi took power in 2013, Egypt has supported the blockade because it fears that an open crossing at Rafah will allow Hamas to provide direct support to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas denies that the opening of the Rafa crossing for Ramadan is part of a deal with Cairo to stop or ease the protests on the Israeli border.
For people trying to cross this week, the reasons for the easing of restrictions are unimportant. They just want to get out while they have the chance.
Raed Madhoun, 32, had been waiting to cross for three days because he is afraid that he will not be allowed to leave after Ramadan.
“I am trying to travel now to complete my master’s degree in Malaysia. I stopped studying for a year because I could not travel before. Now I want to complete my studies,” he said.