Middle East

Syria army, rebels reach deal on Zabadani, Idlib villages: source

Members of al-Qaeda's Nusra Front sit in a trench near the two Shiite Muslim towns of Foua and Kefraya in northwestern Syria, Sept. 22, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT/GENEVA: Warring sides in Syria have reached an agreement under U.N. supervision over the fate of two villages in the northwest and a town near the Lebanese border, sources familiar with the talks said on Thursday, as a ceasefire in the areas held.

The deal included the withdrawal of rebel fighters holed up in the mostly government-held area of Zabadani near Lebanon, and the evacuation of civilians from the Shiite villages of Foua and Kefraya under rebel siege in Idlib province in northwest Syria, the sources said.

It would be implemented within six months, during which time there would be an extended ceasefire in the areas. Evacuation of wounded from both sides could begin as early as Friday.

In addition, some 500 opposition prisoners would be freed from government jails, one source close to talks on the government side and another with knowledge of the negotiations told Reuters.

The deal came just days after Syrian government forces and Hezbollah on one side, and insurgents fighting against Damascus on the other, agreed on a third ceasefire in the areas since August.

Previous ceasefires in Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya, had held only briefly.

Pro-government militia backed by Hezbollah have been defending Foua and Kefraya against insurgent attacks in mainly rebel-held Idlib province which intensified ahead of the latest ceasefire.

The Syrian army and Hezbollah are trying to capture the border town, Zabadani, from besieged rebels, and have said they are close to doing so.

A lasting ceasefire would be a success for foreign-backed diplomacy. Iran and Turkey, which respectively support President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting against him in the four-year civil war, have backed the negotiations.

The deal was reached under U.N. supervision and would be overseen by the United Nations office in Damascus, the sources said.

A spokeswoman for U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was not immediately available for comment.

One of the sources said rebel fighters from Zabadani would be allowed to withdraw to Idlib province, taking only light weapons with them. In return, rebels in Idlib would let some 10,000 civilians from Foua and Kefraya - men over 50, women and children - leave the besieged villages.

Some 4,000 pro-government fighters in the villages would have to remain there, however.

During the six-month period of implementation, which would end with the insurgent fighters leaving Zabadani, no fire was to be exchanged or government air raids carried out, the sources said.

The first move was to begin evacuating critically wounded from both areas, which could begin on Friday.

Syria's four-year civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven more than 11 million from their homes





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