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.


Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

Updated 10 December 2018
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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.