Syria rebels begin leaving zone near Golan: state media

Syrian rebels and their families stand by buses to be evacuated from Daraa city, on July 15, 2018, as Syrian government forces heavily bombed the neighbouring province of Quneitra making a ground advance in the zone. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018

Syria rebels begin leaving zone near Golan: state media

  • Syrian rebels began evacuating the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
  • Rebels in Quneitra province have agreed to either accept the return of state rule, or leave to Idlib province in the north

DAMASCUS: Hard-line rebels and civilians began leaving a southwestern sliver of Syria near the Israeli-annexed Golan on Friday under a surrender deal, state media, as the evacuations turned deadly with a car accident.
The transfers come under a deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will restore state control over the sensitive zone.
Rebels will hand over territory they control in Quneitra and the neighboring buffer zone with the Golan Heights.
The deal also provides for the evacuation to northern Syria of any rebels and militant fighters who refuse to live under government control.
On Friday afternoon, buses began taking civilians and armed fighters out of opposition-held territory through the town of Jaba, state television said.
It said they would be taken north to Idlib which is under militant and rebel control. The channel earlier reported more than 50 buses were prepared to ferry people north.
Vehicles had been arriving in Syria’s south since Thursday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“As the convoy of buses was gathering, one of the drivers lost control and four people, including two women, were run over and killed,” said the Britain-based monitor.
Fighters then fired their weapons, wounding a bus driver.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was still unclear exactly how many people would ultimately be evacuated.
Among them were members of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s onetime Syria affiliate which refused to sign up to the deal.
Quneitra is a thin, crescent-shaped province wedged between the buffer to the west and Daraa province to its east.
One month ago, Syria’s regime launched an operation to retake rebel areas in Daraa and Quneitra, using military force and surrender deals brokered by its Russian ally.
Fighting forced several hundred thousand people to flee, and as many as 140,000 remain displaced in Quneitra, according to the United Nations.
The UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) warned they are inaccessible to aid organizations based around an hour away in Damascus because of a lack of approvals.
Both Israel and Jordan, which shares a border with Syria, have kept their borders closed to the displaced.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan during the Six-Day War of 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognized internationally.
Some 510 square kilometers of the Golan remain on Syria’s side of the cease-fire line, with a UN peacekeeping force overseeing a buffer zone stretching some 70 kilometers from Lebanon in the north to Jordan in the south.
Under the terms of the deal, a rebel source told AFP, Syrian and Russian forces are to enter the buffer zone.

Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

Updated 10 December 2018

Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

  • Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry
  • Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites, organizers said

QASR AL-YAHUD, Palestinian Territories: Efforts to clear thousands of land mines and other ordnance around the site where many believe Jesus was baptized have reached a milestone and officials allowed a rare glimpse Sunday of abandoned churches there.

The church grounds around the site in the occupied West Bank have sat empty and decaying for around 50 years, though pilgrims have been able to visit a nearby restricted area at the traditional baptismal spot on the banks of the River Jordan.

Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry, de-mining charity Halo Trust and Israeli firm 4CI.

According to the ministry, the project covers around 1 square kilometer (250 acres) as well as some 3,000 mines and other explosive remnants.

It is expected to cost 20 million shekels ($5.3 million, €4.7 million).

The work began in March and would require another eight months to a year to complete, said Moshe Hilman of Israel’s Defense Ministry.

Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites as well as a Franciscan chapel, organizers said.

Other grounds belonging to Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox churches are yet to be cleared.

The plan once complete is to return the plots to the various church denominations and allow visits. At the crumbling, brick-and-concrete Ethiopian monastery on Sunday, a fading fresco of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist could still be seen inside.

Signs hung on the walls with notifications that the location had been cleared of explosives.

A collection of pieces of mortars and other explosive remnants sat alongside a nearby roadside as a demonstration of some of what had been found.

“The Halo Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the baptism site of land mines and other remnants of war,” the charity’s CEO James Cowan said in a statement.

He added that “we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches.”

The majority of the mines were laid by Israeli forces after the country seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from Jordanian troops. Other unexploded ordnance from both Israel and Jordan has remained lodged in the ground, including around the churches, which were evacuated by Israel in the 1970s.

Israel’s control of the West Bank has never been recognized by the international community, which considers the land occupied Palestinian territory.