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.


EU-Arab summit set for February 24-25 in Egypt

Updated 42 sec ago
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EU-Arab summit set for February 24-25 in Egypt

BRUSSELS: European Union and Arab leaders will meet in Egypt in late February for their first summit as part of efforts to forge a new European-African alliance and fight migrant smuggling, officials said Thursday.
European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria last month as they vowed to intensify talks with Egypt and other North African countries to curb illegal migration.
“The European Council welcomes the holding of the forthcoming first summit between the 28 EU Member States and the League of Arab States, hosted by Egypt on 24-25 February 2019,” the council of EU leaders said after a summit in Brussels.
The Cairo-based Arab League includes North African countries Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as well as those in the Middle East and Gulf.
EU officials insisted the summit was about more than just migration, but part of a broader push to build closer ties with Africa outlined by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in September.
“It is now much more than about migration and fighting traffickers,” an EU official told reporters.
Juncker urged the EU to strike a “new alliance” with Africa that would create millions of jobs and include a free trade deal.
The Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU, hopes the strategy will both showcase its international influence and help stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.
The EU also wants to boost development in sub-Saharan Africa to ease the poverty that often drives migration.
Brussels has previously struck cooperation deals with both Turkey and Libya, whose coast guard officers are trained by the Europeans to stop migrant sea crossings — despite concerns about conditions in Libyan detention centers.
The deals with the two gateway countries have helped to cut migration to Europe sharply since a 2015 peak, but the bloc wants to expand work with all north African countries.
The leaders called for “strengthening cooperation with countries of origin and transit, particularly in North Africa,” according to the summit’s published conclusions.
“Work with third countries on investigating, apprehending and prosecuting smugglers and traffickers should be intensified,” it said.
EU officials say Egypt has set a high bar in fighting traffickers and smugglers, which could be emulated by other North African countries.
The EU is increasingly focused on bolstering its external borders amid longstanding divisions over redistributing asylum-seekers who make it to Italian and other European shores.
But it is still confronted with the refusal of Hungary and other former communist eastern countries to admit migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.
And Italy’s populist government has this year turned away migrant rescue ships in a bid to force fellow EU countries to share responsibility for them.
The United Nations refugee and migration agencies, the UNHCR and IOM, had this week urged EU leaders to take steps to ensure responsiblities are shared.
They said the debate was so “dangerously toxic” in some countries that it was harder to find common solutions.
Even though fewer people were arriving in Europe, the two agencies said, the rate of people dying in the Mediterranean was increasing. More than 1,700 lives have been lost since January.