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Thousands head home in Syria's Idlib after deal — monitor

By AFP - Sep 20,2018 - Last updated at Sep 20,2018

A Syrian man and a child sell drinks in an empty street in Morek, a town in the northern countryside of Hama province that links regime-held areas to the south and rebel territory in neighbouring Idlib province to the north, on Tuesday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Thousands of residents of Syria's last major rebel bastion Idlib headed home within 48 hours of a deal being announced to avoid a government offensive to retake the province, a war monitor said on Wednesday.

As air strikes 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 many headed home after a deal was reached between Russia and rebel supporter Turkey to create a demilitarised buffer zone along the front line, as the first step in a wider settlement, 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 [neighbouring] Hama," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based observatory.

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 air strikes.

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

The United Nations 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," UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali Al Zaatari, said on Tuesday.

“We are engaging with all parties involved for more information and how this can be used to allow us to further access people in need,” he told AFP on Wednesday.

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 in and around Idlib have fled from other parts of Syria recaptured by government forces in previous offensives.

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