Most heavy arms out of planned Syria buffer zone

A man stands in the rubble as the Syrian regime begins to clear the wreckage at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus on Tuesday. (AFP )
Updated 10 October 2018
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Most heavy arms out of planned Syria buffer zone

  • The pullback is the first major test of a deal brokered by regime ally Russia and opposition-backer Turkey last month
  • Under the terms of the deal, the buffer zone is to be patrolled by Turkish troops and Russian military police

BEIRUT: Militants and Turkish-backed opposition in Syria’s last major opposition stronghold have withdrawn most of their heavy weapons from a planned buffer zone ahead of a Wednesday deadline, a monitor said.

The pullback is the first major test of a deal brokered by regime ally Russia and opposition-backer Turkey last month to avoid what the UN warned would be the appalling humanitarian consequences of a major regime offensive.

Under the agreement, all factions have until Wednesday to withdraw heavy weaponry from the 15- to 20-km wide buffer zone, which rings Idlib province and adjacent areas of the northwest.

And by Monday, the buffer zone must be free of all militants, including those of the region’s dominant armed group, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

Analysts had expected Ankara to have a difficult time enforcing the Sept. 17 deal but by Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the heavy weapons pullout was near complete.

“The buffer zone is now almost empty of any heavy weapons on the eve of the expiry of the deadline,” the Britain-based monitor’s chief, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

HTS and smaller militant factions quietly began withdrawing their heavy arms on Saturday in an operation that continued through Monday night, the Observatory said.

The pro-Ankara National Liberation Front said it had completed its weapons pullback on Monday.

HTS, which controls more than two-thirds of the buffer zone around Idlib along with other militants, has not given any formal response to the Sept. 17 truce deal.

But by beginning to pull out its weapons, the group was implementing it “de facto,” Abdel Rahman said.

“No faction, rebel or jihadist, would be able to withstand the consequences of any escalation if the deal’s terms were not met,” Abdel Rahman said.

A source close to HTS told AFP it had come under irresistible pressure to fall in line to avoid further hardship for the opposition-controlled zone’s 3 million residents, many of whom have fled previous bloody regime offensives on other parts of Syria.

“Everybody has been forced to agree to the initiative, though reluctantly, so that people can enjoy a bit of security and safety after long years of suffering from the savagery of the regime and its allies,” the source said.

The source said HTS was satisfied that the presence of the Turkish troops, whose numbers have been increased in recent weeks, would prevent any Russian-backed regime offensive.

Under the terms of the deal, the buffer zone is to be patrolled by Turkish troops and Russian military police.

But the opposition groups objected to Moscow’s presence in the zone and said they received Turkish guarantees that Russian patrols had been dropped.

For the zone to come into effect, “radical groups” — interpreted as meaning HTS and other militants — must also leave the area by next Monday.

It is still not clear whether the militants will comply with this second deadline.

Nawar Oliver, an analyst from the Turkey-based Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, said he thought HTS would comply with the deal even if it did not publicly announce its support.

“It’ll still have a presence in Idlib and is not handing over any weapons or fighters, but is handing over the (buffer) zone to a neutral side, Turkey, and to the NLF,” he told AFP.

Forces loyal to Bashar Assad have retaken swathes of territory in Syria since Russia intervened in September 2015.

A series of offensives earlier this year saw a succession of long-time opposition strongholds surrender. A similar Russia-backed assault had been expected in Idlib before the deal was announced last month.

Despite progress in implementing the Idlib deal, Assad insisted on Sunday that the arrangement would not become permanent.

In comments reported by state news agency SANA, he said the accord was a “temporary measure” and Idlib would eventually return to regime control.

The civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests.


Libya protesters demand release of Qaddafi-era spy chief

Former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi (L), dressed in prison blues, sits along with other defendants behind the bars of the accused cell during a hearing as part of his trial in a courthouse in Tripoli on December 28, 2014. (AFP)
Updated 40 min 12 sec ago
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Libya protesters demand release of Qaddafi-era spy chief

  • Senussi was extradited in September 2012 by Mauritania, where he had fled after Qaddafi’s fall
  • Al-Islam was captured and imprisoned by an armed group in the northwestern city of Zintan and sentenced by a Tripoli court in absentia

TRIPOLI: Relatives and supporters of Libya’s Qaddafi-era intelligence chief, jailed for his alleged role in a bloody crackdown during the country’s 2011 uprising, protested in Tripoli on Saturday to demand his release.
Abdullah Al-Senussi, a brother-in-law of longtime dictator Muamar Qaddafi, was sentenced to death in 2015 over the part he allegedly played in the regime’s response to a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled and killed Qaddafi.
Eight others close to Qaddafi, including the Libyan leader’s son, Seif Al-Islam, also received death sentences following a trial condemned by the UN as “seriously” flawed.
Several dozen relatives and members of Senussi’s tribe, the Magerha, gathered in a central Tripoli square to demand he be freed over health concerns.
“The law and medical reports support our legitimate demand,” said one protester, Mohamad Amer.
Officials have not released specific details on his alleged health problems.
In a statement, the Magerha said his liberation would “contribute to and consolidate national reconciliation” in a country torn apart by intercommunal conflicts since Qaddafi’s fall.
The unusual protest comes just over a month after the release on health grounds of Abuzeid Dorda, Qaddafi’s head of foreign intelligence who was sentenced at the same time as Senussi.
The protesters held up photos of Senussi behind bars and placards reading “Freedom to prisoners. Yes to national reconciliation.”
Senussi was extradited in September 2012 by Mauritania, where he had fled after Qaddafi’s fall.
Like the dictator’s son, he had also been the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for suspected war crimes during the 2011 uprising.
But in an unusual move, in 2013 the court gave Libyan authorities the green light to put him on trial.
He has since been detained in the capital, along with some 40 other senior Qaddafi-era officials including the dictator’s last prime minister Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi.
Al-Islam was captured and imprisoned by an armed group in the northwestern city of Zintan and sentenced by a Tripoli court in absentia.
The group announced his release in 2017 but it was never confirmed and his fate remains unknown.