Rebels fire shells from Syria buffer despite heavy arms pullout: monitor

FILE Turkish forces are seen in a convoy on a main highway between Damascus and Aleppo near the town of Saraqib in Syria's northern Idlib province on 29 August 2018

FILE Turkish forces are seen in a convoy on a main highway between Damascus and Aleppo near the town of Saraqib in Syria's northern Idlib province on 29 August 2018

Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist alliance spearheaded by al-Qaida's former Syrian affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front, signaled Sunday it would abide by the terms of the deal to prevent an Assad regime offensive on opposition-held enclave, but the midnight deadline passed without visible withdrawal from the buffer zone.

The deal agreed last month is only the latest in a string of truces throughout Syria's seven-year civil war, which has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions.

"We appreciate the efforts of all those who strive inside and overseas to protect the liberated area and forbid its destruction or massacres being carried out in it", HTS said, in a likely reference to Turkey.

"But at the same time, we warn of the deceitfulness of the Russian occupier", it said of President Bashar al-Assad's ally.

The deal for Idlib sets up a buffer zone running 15-20 km (9-13 miles) deep into rebel territory that must be evacuated of all heavy weapons and all jihadists by Monday. By Monday's deadline, its militants had not left the demarcated area, one of the conditions of the Russian-Turkish deal, according to the United Kingdom -based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"We did not document the withdrawal of any jihadist fighters from the entire demilitarized zone", Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, said Monday morning.

HTS had likely "tried to gain time by neither explicitly refusing nor accepting the deal" between Russian Federation and Turkey, he said.

But the shells that hit an army position in Hama provinceon Saturday appear to have been fired in violation of the accord.

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It was unclear which groups fired the mortars late Saturday as both the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front and rival factions were present in the area.

The NLF - which holds just under half of the Idlib region and has welcomed the accord - did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment on the shelling. However, it added that Tahrir al Sham would not end its fight or hand over its weapons.

HTS and other militants control more than two-thirds of the planned demilitarise area that was to come into force on Monday.

Hurras al-Deen, an even more hardline faction, has rejected it.

While the deadline for withdrawing heavy weapons was met on time, there has been no indication that the second condition is being implemented.

"If this deal falls short and military operations start, many hundreds of thousands will struggle to get the help they will so badly need", warned Lorraine Bramwell, IRC's Syria country director.

In recent days, HTS has softened its opposition to the demilitarization plan and, according to a member of the group based in Idlib, is negotiating with Turkey as to whether to comply with the plan.

"If HTS acts as a spoiler to the agreement on the ground, this will probably lead to one of two scenarios: either Turkey and the NLF launch military action against HTS, or Russian Federation will seize the opportunity with the support of the regime and its allies to enter Idlib", Oliver said.

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