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Syrian rebels start to withdraw heavy weapons from Idlib buffer zone

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has yet to announce its stance on deal

By AFP - Oct 07,2018 - Last updated at Oct 07,2018

Syrians gather in demonstration under a Turkish army border post, near the town of Khribat Jawz on the Syrian-Turkish border, on Friday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels said Saturday they have begun withdrawing heavy arms from a planned buffer zone in north-western Idlib province, ahead of a deadline to set up the demilitarised area.

The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) "has started pulling out its heavy weapons from the zone", the rebel coalition's spokesman Naji Mustafa told AFP.

The buffer zone, agreed last month between rebel backer Ankara and government ally Moscow, aims to separate regime fighters from the myriad rebel and extremist forces of the Idlib region.

The accord, reached on September 17, aims to stave off a massive regime assault on the last major rebel bastion by creating a 15 to 20-kilometre buffer zone ringing the area.

All rebels in the demilitarised zone must withdraw heavy arms by October 10, and radical groups must leave by October 15.

NLF spokesman Mustafa said the rebel coalition was “maintaining its positions and headquarters with medium and light weapons” inside the buffer zone.

The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but extremist heavyweight Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) holds most of the province.

The HTS has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.

Fighting erupted on Friday between Ankara-backed rebels and HTS extremist hardliners near the planned demilitarisation zone, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting first began between HTS, led by former Al Qaeda fighters, and Nour Al Din Al Zinki rebels in the town of Kafr Halab.

HTS had reportedly been trying to arrest a local commander in the town on the western edge of Aleppo province, near the administrative border with Idlib.

“Zinki sent reinforcements to the area, and the clashes expanded to several areas and the National Liberation Front joined in,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Britain-based Observatory said HTS had taken two towns, including Kafr Halab. At least three civilians, two NLF fighters and an HTS member were killed, the monitor said.

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