Opposition fighters reach north Syria after south evacuations

A Syrian child looks through the windows of a bus as displaced people from the Quneitra province wait at the Morak crossing point to be carried in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, in Morak, northwestern Syria, on July 21, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 July 2018
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Opposition fighters reach north Syria after south evacuations

  • The evacuations from Quneitra came after a Russia-brokered agreement was reached to see rebels hand over the territory to the Syrian regime
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the first convoy to reach Morek transported around 2,800 people

Hundreds of opposition fighters and their families arrived on Saturday in northwestern Syria after their evacuation from a southern province under a deal with the regime, an AFP correspondent said.

Airstrikes by regime ally Russia, meanwhile, on a southern militant holdout killed six civilians, a Britain-based monitor said.
The evacuations from Quneitra province, which borders the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, came after a Russia-brokered agreement struck earlier this week for the opposition to cede the territory to the Syrian regime.
Opposition elements who opposed the territorial handover were given the option to leave.
On Saturday afternoon, state news agency SANA said preparations were underway to ferry a second wave of people from Quneitra to the north of Syria.
In the morning, the first wave of around 50 buses carrying opposition fighters and their families reached the Morek crossing on the edge of northwestern opposition-held Idlib province, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
Near the parked buses in Morek, a woman and five children waited by a cluster of small suitcases, the eldest among them carrying bottles of water and a blanket.
Men with light weapons slung on their backs shared a bite to eat and some water as they stood around waiting. Several wore scarves wrapped around their faces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the first convoy to reach Morek transported around 2,800 people.
They were to be transferred to other buses run by local NGOs, before traveling further north to temporary camps in rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the Britain-based monitor said.
“More than half of the evacuees are women and children,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The evacuations follow a deadly regime offensive on Quneitra, a thin, crescent-shaped province that lies along the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.
The Russia-negotiated rebel surrender also saw fighters hand over heavy and medium weapons and the return of regime institutions to the area.
Regime forces launched their southern offensive on June 19, targeting the province of Daraa on the border with Jordan, before turning their attention to neighboring Quneitra.
With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, President Bashar Assad’s troops this month captured more than 90 percent of Daraa, where protests against him first erupted in 2011.
Regime forces backed by Russia have continued their campaign in Daraa, aiming to retake areas still controlled by Daesh, which is not party to the Russia-backed withdrawal deals.
On Saturday, Russian airstrikes killed six civilians in that Daesh-held pocket, the Observatory said.
The deadly raids came just a day after strikes in the same area took the lives of 26 non-combatants including 11 children.
On Saturday, clashes between Assad loyalists and opposition groups in the area also killed 13 regime fighters, including eight in a car bombing.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with a brutal government crackdown on protesters.


Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019
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Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.