Thousands head home in Syria’s Idlib after deal, says monitor

Syrian children play in Morek, a town in the northern countryside of Hama province in neighboring Idlib province to the north, on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 19 September 2018
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Thousands head home in Syria’s Idlib after deal, says monitor

  • At a camp for the displaced in the town of Atme on the Turkish border on Tuesday, dozens of Syrians held up banners welcoming the agreement
  • As airstrikes intensified earlier this month, the looming threat of a Russian-backed assault had prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee areas near the front line.

BEIRUT, MOSCOW: Thousands of residents of Syria’s last major opposition bastion Idlib headed home within 48 hours of the announcement of a deal to avoid a government offensive to retake it, a war monitor said on Wednesday.

As airstrikes intensified earlier this month, the looming threat of a Russian-backed assault had prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee areas near the front line.

But the announcement of an agreement between Russia and opposition supporter Turkey to create a demilitarized buffer zone along the front line as the first step in a wider settlement prompted many to head home, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Around 7,000 people have returned to their towns and villages since the announcement of the deal on Monday, especially in the southeast of Idlib and the north of (neighboring) Hama,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

At a camp for the displaced in the town of Atme on the Turkish border on Tuesday, dozens of Syrians held up banners welcoming the agreement.

“We will return, God permitting,” said one.

“Thank you to our Turkish brothers,” said another, signed by the people of a town in the north of Hama province that had been bombarded in recent weeks.

One of the demonstrators, Marhaf Al-Jadou, said he was tired of running from the shelling and airstrikes.

“Enough of being displaced and sitting in tents. We want to return to our homes and our children to their schools,” he said.

The UN has given cautious backing to the Russian-Turkish agreement.

It “will allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for the saving of civilian lives,” the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali Al-Zaatari, said on Tuesday.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions more since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Around half of the three million residents of the rebel zone around Idlib have fled from other parts of Syria recaptured by government forces in previous offensives.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the military’s combat experience gained in Syria has helped develop new weapons systems.

Russia has waged a campaign in Syria since September 2015, helping turn the tide of war in favor of Assad. The Russian military has used the conflict to test its new jets, cruise missiles and other weapons in combat for the first time.

Speaking on Wednesday at a meeting focusing on military industries, Putin said that new Russian weapons excel their foreign equivalents.

Putin singled out the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Su-57 fighter jet, the S-500 air defense system and the Armata battle tank, which are set to enter service in the coming years.


Another Turkish journalist jailed over Gulen links

Ali Unal was chief writer at the now-defunct Zaman newspaper. (Supplied)
Updated 15 November 2018
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Another Turkish journalist jailed over Gulen links

  • About 250 people were killed in the coup attempt and in the subsequent crackdown, Turkey jailed 77,000 people pending trial

ISTANBUL: A court sentenced Turkish journalist Ali Unal to 19 years in jail on Wednesday on a charge of being a leader in the network accused of carrying out a failed coup in July 2016, the state-owned Anadolu news agency reported.
The ruling followed a sustained crackdown in the wake of the coup attempt, but also came amid steps by the government that appear aimed at improving ties with the US and Europe, strained by the sweeping campaign of arrests.
Unal was chief writer at the now-defunct Zaman newspaper, widely seen as the flagship media outlet for the network of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara says orchestrated the attempted putsch. Gulen denies any involvement.
Speaking by video link from jail to the court in the western province of Usak, Unal denied being a founder or leader of the network and denied involvement in the putsch, Anadolu said.
“I have no link with any terrorist organization,” he said, adding that he had spoken five or six times to Gulen and that he was being tried over his writing.
He was sentenced to 19 years and six months for “leading an armed terrorist group.” Six other Zaman journalists were convicted on similar charges in July.
About 250 people were killed in the coup attempt and in the subsequent crackdown, Turkey jailed 77,000 people pending trial. Authorities also sacked or suspended 150,000 civil servants and military personnel and shut down dozens of media outlets.Illustrating the scale of its actions, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday his ministry had dismissed 23 percent of its career personnel over links to Gulen.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said some journalists helped nurture terrorists with their writing, and that the crackdown is needed to ensure stability in a NATO member bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran. Critics say Erdogan has used the crackdown to muzzle dissent and increase his own power. The European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, has also criticized the crackdown. The verdict came a day after another court threw out the conviction of former Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak, annulling a verdict sentencing her to two years in prison in absentia on charges of carrying out propaganda for Kurdish militants.