Syria rebels hand over arms in new deal with government

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels on Friday were surrendering their heavy weapons after reaching a new deal with the government for a central swathe of territory, a war monitor said.
Opposition fighters agreed with regime forces and their allies to a ceasefire deal earlier this week for parts of Syria’s central provinces of Hama and Homs, including the rebel towns of Talbisseh, Rastan and Al Houla.
“The fighters are handing over their heavy and intermediate weapons to Russian and regime forces for the second consecutive day,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
It included artillery and machine guns, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory.
“Once the handovers are finished, the rebels who want to leave will be evacuated out with civilians,” Abdel Rahman said.
Rebels and civilians will be granted safe passage to the rebel-held town of Jarabulus, in Aleppo province, and the neighbouring province of Idlib which largely escapes government control, according to state news agency SANA.
It said the deal also provided for the return of government institutions to the three towns and the reopening of a key highway.
That highway runs from the capital Damascus, through Homs, and onto second city Aleppo, in the north. Securing it has been a major target for the regime’s military operations.
The area in Homs was part of a “de-escalation zone” agreed one year ago by opposition supporter Turkey and regime allies.
The four zones initially saw a reduction in shelling but violence has since escalated.
One of them, Eastern Ghouta, was recaptured last month by the Syrian government after a blistering two-month offensive that ended in forced evacuations of rebels and civilians there.
Jaish al Izza, one rebel faction present in the Homs zone, has said it rejects the agreement and pledged to remain deployed on its front lines.
Another evacuation deal was under way on Friday in rebel-held areas south of the capital.
SANA reported buses were entering the towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham to take opposition fighters and civilians north to rebel territory.
INSPECTORS BACK: Chemical weapons inspectors have returned from a mission to the Syrian town of Douma, where they took samples and interviewed witnesses to determine whether banned munitions were used in an attack last month, a diplomatic source said on Friday.
A team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons returned to the Netherlands on Thursday night after going to Damascus on April 14, the source said on condition of anonymity.
The suspected chemical attack prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain on April 13 against several alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
The OPCW is investigating the deaths of dozens of people in Douma, an enclave in Ghouta on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, on April 7.
ARAB TROOPS: Sending Arab troops to Syria is a possibility that is being discussed by officials from various countries, Egypt’s foreign minister was quoted on Friday as saying.
But a foreign ministry spokesman said Sameh Shoukry, who was speaking at a function on Thursday night, was not raising the possibility that Egypt itself might be ready to send forces to Syria, adding that such a decision was subject to constitutional constraints. — Agencies