Fresh Syria peace talks off to another stumbling start

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a meeting during Intra Syria talks at the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland, May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syria peace talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva spawned a new series of meetings on Thursday with no hint of tangible progress toward a deal to end the six-year-old civil war.

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura had promised a refreshingly brisk pace of business-like meetings over a short four-day round, with new elections, a new constitution, reformed governance and counter-terrorism on the agenda.

He opened proceedings on Thursday by proposing setting up a “consultative mechanism”, which he would head, to avoid a power vacuum in Syria before a new constitution is in place.

That was rejected by the Syrian government and raised a string of questions from the opposition, so de Mistura said he was “moving beyond” those discussions to start a new set of expert meetings with each side.

A U.N. statement referred to “an initial part of a process of expert meetings on legal and constitutional issues of relevance to the intra-Syrian talks”.

In a sign of the chasm between foes who have frustrated repeated international efforts at peacemaking, they are not negotiating face-to-face but only in turn with de Mistura.

Government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari told reporters that the expert meetings were an initiative from his delegation and would take place on Thursday and continue Friday if needed.

“We hope that this step … will help in pushing this round forward, and the Geneva process in general toward the seriousness that is hoped for by everyone,” Ja’afari said.

He added that the constitution was “the exclusive right of the Syrian people, and we do not accept any foreign interference in it”.

Opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters that the Damascus delegation was trying to divert attention from the main objective of the talks – political transition, a phrase used by the opposition to mean Assad’s ouster.

Asked if the three days of talks had made headway, he said: “Not too much. Original expectations were not very high.”

The United States and Russia – who back the rebels and Assad respectively – forged an international consensus in December 2015 mandating de Mistura to push for a political solution.

But the talks have been increasingly marginalized over the past year as Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have won back territory from the rebels, while the United States has largely stepped back from a leading role in Syrian diplomacy.

Syria’s war has killed hundreds of thousands and created more than 6 million refugees. About 625,000 people are besieged, mostly by Assad’s forces.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Mark Heinrich)

In Syria, a bus ride shows shifting map of war

Passengers wait in Qamishli city in Syria's Kurdish-held northeast to embark on a bus headed for government-controlled Aleppo, Syria May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – A new bus service linking Syria’s Kurdish-controlled northeast with the government-held west, unthinkable before Islamic State was driven from the area, is raising hopes of renewed commerce between two long-estranged parts of a fractured country.

Kurdish-led authorities hope the new corridor will end the economic isolation of their region, bordered as it is by hostile parties. For Damascus, the corridor holds out the prospect of sourcing fuel and food from the resource-rich northeast.

The service from Kurdish-controlled Qamishli to Aleppo city goes through territory captured from Islamic State (IS) by Russian-backed Syrian government forces in February. Until then, only an intrepid few would make a journey that entailed crossing through areas held by Islamic State and competing rebel groups.

“Before, there were no passengers, very, very few, because of the security conditions,” said Ahmad Abou Abboud, the head of Qamishli office of the bus company that started the service in late April.

Demand has risen steadily since the first busses – sleek, white, air-conditioned coaches with purple curtains – went into operation. Weekly trips have increased from two to three, Abboud told Reuters in Qamishli.

A Kurdish official said so far the road was being used only for travel, not trade.

The new bus service is the result of one of the most important shifts in the map of the Syrian conflict in recent times, with the areas controlled by government forces and Kurdish-allied militias being linked up near the city of Manbij.


It points to the highly nuanced state of relations between the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish authorities that have established control over wide areas of the north since war began in 2011.

Despite historic enmity, Syria’s Kurds and government have seldom clashed. They have also found themselves fighting the same adversaries in the civil war in areas where their military interests have converged, including Turkey-backed rebel groups.

Its critics say the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, has cooperated with government forces. The YPG denies this.

The newly opened route passes west from Qamishli through a swathe of territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of militias dominated by the Kurdish YPG. Much of the SDF-held territory was captured from Islamic State with support from the U.S.-led coalition.

The SDF-held region meets areas held by the Syrian government and its allies to the south of Manbij.

“We heard about this route in the media, after that we knew it was opened,” Abou Abboud said. “We were in contact with the relevant parties, and we have contacts with all parties – the regime and the autonomous administration.

“The two sides facilitated it.”

Abdul Karim Saroukhan, head of the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria, said the bus route was a private initiative, and not sponsored by the government he runs from the city of Amuda 30 km (20 miles) from Qamishli.

Speaking to Reuters, he said the route had yet to be used for commerce. In a Reuters interview in March, Saroukhan expressed hope the route would end the economic “siege” imposed on his region, which is bordered to the north by Turkey and to the east by the Iraqi Kurdish administration – both of which are hostile to the nascent Kurdish government in northern Syria.

Syrian government officials could not be reached for comment. An official in Damascus however said the bus service was a positive thing and suggested it had government approval.

“Any move that helps geographic contact between Syrian regions with the knowledge of the Syrian state is viewed as a helpful, good thing, and helps to restore life to normalcy,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Both sides have recently hinted they could be ready to reach a political accommodation. The Kurdish YPG militia has said it would have “no problem” with the government once Kurdish rights were secured, and the Syrian foreign minister has expressed confidence an “understanding” could be reached.

The YPG has allowed the Syrian government to maintain control over pockets of territory in the northeast, including Qamishli airport from which flights go to Damascus.

The government has meanwhile allowed the YPG to maintain control of a Kurdish neighborhood of Aleppo city.

Suspicion lingers however as the sides promote conflicting visions for Syria’s future. The Kurdish groups and their allies in the north want to preserve their autonomy in any peace deal, and promote a federal model for Syria.

Assad, who controls swathes of western Syria, has repeatedly said he wants to bring all the country back under government rule, and last year dismissed the local governance created in Kurdish areas as “temporary structures”.

(Writing/additional reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut; editing by Ralph Boulton)

U.S.-backed Syrian forces expect Raqqa assault soon, await weapons

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials hold a press conference in the town of Tabqa, after capturing it from Islamic State militants this week, Syria May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

TABQA, Syria (Reuters) – The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Friday their attack to capture Raqqa city from Islamic State would begin soon and the U.S.-led coalition would supply them with weapons including armored vehicles for the assault.

The SDF, an alliance of militias including Arab groups and the Kurdish YPG militia, has been waging a campaign to isolate and ultimately capture Raqqa city since November, with backing from the U.S.-led coalition.

While the U.S.-led coalition has already supplied weapons to Arab fighters in the SDF, the White House this week authorized for the first time arming its most powerful element – the Kurdish YPG – to help in the Raqqa assault, infuriating Turkey.

SDF commander Abdul Qader Hevdeli declined to say when exactly the assault on Raqqa would begin, but said it would be soon during a news conference in the town of Tabqa, which the SDF captured this week from IS after weeks of fighting.

“I can’t specify exactly, I believe entering and storming the city will happen at the start of the summer,” he said.

“At the start of entering (Raqqa), of course, as (the U.S.-led coalition) promised us, there will be support in the form of specialized weapons, armored vehicles or others,” he said.

He said that weapons the White House has approved for the YPG had yet to arrive. “I believe these weapons or this support will arrive soon,” he said.

The capture of Tabqa and its nearby dam on the Euphrates river marked a major milestone in the SDF campaign against IS. The SDF said in a statement Tabqa would be turned over to a civilian council once fully secured.

It also said the authority that oversees the hydroelectric Tabqa dam would remain “a national Syrian institution that will serve all the regions of Syria without exception”.

(Additional reporting by Beirut bureau; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Richard Lough)

With tunnel lifeline cut, pressure mounts on Syrian rebel enclave

Abu Malek, one of the survivors of a chemical attack in the Ghouta region of Damascus that took place in 2013, uses his crutches to walk along a street in the Ghouta town of Ain Tarma, Syria. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – For nearly four years, food, fuel and medicine have traveled across frontlines into the besieged eastern suburbs of Damascus through a network of underground tunnels.

But an army offensive near the Syrian capital has shut the routes into the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, causing supplies to dwindle and prices to rocket, residents say.

“The price of fuel went up like crazy,” said Adnan, 30, the head of a local aid group that distributes food.

A cooking gas canister now costs 50,000 Syrian pounds, nearly four times its price before the attack and almost 20 times the state-regulated price in nearby Damascus.

Adnan, whose aid group buys rice, lentils and other goods that arrive via the tunnels, said the shutdown and steep price hikes had triggered rising despair in the suburbs.

As the army tightens the noose, fighters and civilians are bracing for a full-blown assault and bitter shortages that could last through the winter.

“The operation aims to strangle the Ghouta … by closing off the crossings and tunnels,” Hamza Birqdar, military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, told Reuters.

“Trade through the tunnels has completely stopped.”

Government forces have blockaded Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated pocket of satellite towns and farms, since 2013. It remains the only major rebel bastion near Damascus, though it has shrunk by almost half over the past year.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been steadily defeating pockets of armed rebellion near the capital, with the help of Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.

It ultimately aims to seize the Ghouta, pushing fighters to accept state rule or leave for rebel territory in the north, in a type of negotiated withdrawal that has helped shore up its rule over Syria’s main urban centers.


Heavy fighting and air strikes have rocked the districts that stand between Damascus and Eastern Ghouta, severing smuggling routes that provided a lifeline for around 300,000 people in the besieged suburbs.

The army assault entered a higher gear in recent months in the districts of Barzeh and Qaboun, at the capital’s eastern edges, which abruptly ended a local truce that had been in place with rebels there since 2014.

Their relative calm and location had turned them into a transit point where traders brought supplies from the capital and shuttled them underground into the opposition enclave. Government forces have now swept into most of the two districts.

The siege generated a black market economy and profiteers who traded across frontlines, says an activist who has smuggled medicine through one of the tunnels.

Goods prices were ramped up by payments to checkpoints in government-held areas and rebels that control the tunnels, the activist and other residents said.

Syrian officials were not available for comment on such allegations.

Syrian state media says Ghouta militants dug tunnels hundreds of meters long to move weapons and ambush army positions. The tunnels have been a target of army operations, with several blown up in recent months, it has said.

The wide array of rebels – including hardline jihadists and other groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies – have been on the back-foot across Syria.

In Eastern Ghouta, a bout of renewed rebel infighting, after a rebel attack at the fringes of Damascus quickly fizzled out in March, could play into the government’s hands.

Birqdar said rebels faced “heavy shelling, air strikes, and incoming tanks” every day. “We must prepare for every scenario that could happen on the battlefield,” he said.

“We are fully ready to negotiate over stopping the bloodshed by the regime, but will not accept any talks that lead to surrender.” He ruled out a local evacuation deal.

The government says such deals have succeeded where U.N.-based peace talks failed. The opposition describes it as a strategy of forced displacement after years of siege – a method of warfare the United Nations has condemned as a war crime.


The U.N. has warned of impending starvation if aid does not reach Eastern Ghouta, where international deliveries have long been erratic and obstructed. A convoy that entered last week, for the first time in months, carried food and supplies for just about 10 percent of the estimated population.

“People have rushed to the markets to stock up,” said Adnan. “Because they have bitter memories of 2013,” when their towns first came under siege.

Merchants inside the Ghouta had filled up large warehouses that would last months, and residents would harvest crops in the area’s remaining farmland in the summer, he said. “Things will get worse when winter comes.”

The Wafideen crossing at the outskirts, where checkpoints allowed food to enter, has also been restricted since February, Adnan and others said.

One resident said rebel fighters also ran their own hidden routes through which they had moved unnoticed or smuggled arms.

Medics relied on the tunnels for antibiotics, anesthetics, and other supplies, said Abu Ibrahim Baker, a surgeon in Eastern Ghouta. Hospitals would be “able to hold out, God willing, but not for very long,” he said.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Tom Perry and Catherine Evans)

U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurds threatens Turkey: foreign minister

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Tulay Karadeniz and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey urged the United States on Wednesday to reverse a decision to arm Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State (IS) in Syria, saying every weapon supplied to the YPG militia constituted “a threat to Turkey”.

The angry reply came a week before President Tayyip Erdogan is due in Washington for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, who approved the arms supply to support a campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State.

Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking while on a visit to Montenegro, said weapons supplied to the YPG had in the past fallen into PKK hands.

“Both the PKK and YPG are terrorist organizations and they are no different apart from their names,” he told a televised news conference. “Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”

The United States sees the YPG as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State militants in northern Syria, and says that arming the Kurdish forces is necessary to retaking the city of Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria and a hub for planning attacks against the West.

The YPG said Washington’s decision would bring swift results and help the militia “play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism”.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it was aware of concerns in Turkey, a NATO ally that has given vital support to a U.S.-led campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. Jets carrying out air strikes against IS have flown from Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Erdogan has not yet responded to Trump’s decision, but has repeatedly castigated Washington for its support of the YPG.

Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said the United States should review its decision. “We hope the U.S. administration will put a stop to this wrong and turn back from it,” he said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster A Haber.

“Such a policy will not be beneficial, you can’t be in the same sack as terrorist organizations.”


Ankara has argued that Washington should switch support for the Raqqa assault from the YPG to Syrian rebels Turkey has trained and led against Islamic State for the past year – despite Washington’s scepticism about their military capability.

“There is no reality in the comments that a ground operation against Daesh (Islamic State) can only be successful with the YPG. I hope they turn back from this mistake,” Canikli said.

Despite the angry language, Erdogan’s government has little chance of reversing Washington’s decision, and any retaliatory move would come at a cost.

Cavusoglu said Trump would discuss the issue with Trump during his planned May 16-17 visit to Washington, suggesting there were no plans to call off the talks in protest.

“Turkey doesn’t have much room to move here,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe. “I think Washington made such an evaluation when taking this decision.”

While Turkey could impose limits on the use of the Incirlik base, that would hamper operations against Islamic State, which also menaces Turkey itself and has claimed responsibility for attacks including the bombing of Istanbul airport.

Turkey could also step up air strikes on PKK targets in northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes attacked Kurdish YPG fighters in northeastern Syria and Iraq’s Sinjar region late last month.

But Cavusoglu and Canikli both pointed to a diplomatic, rather than military, response to Trump’s decision.

“We are carrying out, and will carry out, all necessary diplomatic communications,” Canikli said. “Our wish is that the U.S. stops this wrong and does what is mandated by our friendship.”

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler in Istanbul; editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Qatar says Syria ‘de-escalation’ plan not an alternative to political transition

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, in this file photo dated April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

DOHA (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister on Tuesday welcomed a Russian-brokered agreement for “de-escalation” zones in Syria but said the plan was no substitute for a political transition that would see President Bashar al-Assad step down.

Qatar has been a supporter of rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the Syrian president during six years of civil war.

“It is good to have de-escalation zones but this must be a step to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis and not to use it as an excuse to delay this solution and to postpone the political transition,” the Qatari foreign ministry quoted Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani as telling the Doha-based al-Jazeera network.

The remarks came after talks between the Qatari minister and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington.

Russia brokered the deal for de-escalation zones with backing from Iran and opposition supporter Turkey during ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week. The deal took effect at midnight on Friday.

Some fighting has continued in those areas, particularly north of Hama city, but the overall intensity has reduced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

(Reporting by Tom Finn, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

If London were Aleppo – Buckingham Palace destroyed, 4.3 million dead or displaced

People view sunrise in London, Britain, January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

BERLIN (Reuters) – The bullet-riddled, bombed-out buildings of Aleppo may bear little resemblance to London’s gleaming skyscrapers but the two cities once had much in common, something German artist Hans Hack has seized on to bring home the reality of war.

Before Syria’s six-year civil war, Aleppo — like London — was its country’s biggest city, as well as a key commercial hub. But, unlike teeming London, half of Aleppo is now effectively a ghost town.

To bring the suffering home to those in Europe, data visualizer Hack has used United Nations satellite data of Aleppo’s destruction and created equivalent maps of London and Berlin.

“For me it’s hard to understand in the news what it means, how strongly Aleppo was destroyed. I wanted to take this information and project it onto something I know personally that I can have some reference to. So I chose Berlin and London,” hack told Reuters.

London suffered the same damage as Aleppo, entire neighborhoods would be wiped off the map — in this alternative reality, Buckingham Palace, the Olympic stadium and the tower of London are all rubble.

It’s an echo of what happened in Aleppo. When the Syrian army captured the city from rebels in December 2016, the area was in ruins.

What the map doesn’t show are the human casualties. Since Syria’s civil war began the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Aleppo’s population fell from 2 million to 1.3 million just after people started returning to the city.

A drop of similar proportions in London would see about 4.3 million people killed or displaced.

Feras al-Shehabi, chairman of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, told Reuters in February that his city’s situation was “very similar to Berlin in 1946 or Tokyo in 1946. So you have a destroyed city.”

Still, Hack is reluctant to compare modern-day Aleppo with the cities ravaged in World War Two.

“I’m reluctant to draw parallels with history because I don’t think you can directly compare the way people have suffered. But I can imagine those who remember what it was like then (World War Two) don’t need a map like this,” he said.

(Reporting by Sreerk Heinz, writing by Rosanna Philpott in London Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Syria fighting eases as Russian deal takes effect

FILE PHOTO: Relief workers unload humanitarian aid in the rebel-held besieged Syrian town of Douma. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces eased on Saturday as a Russian-led effort to shore up a ceasefire took effect, although battles continued on an important frontline near Hama, a rebel commander and war monitor said.

The deal to create “de-escalation” zones in the major areas of conflict in western Syria took effect at midnight. The initiative was proposed by Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, with the support of Turkey, which backs the opposition. Iran, Assad’s other major ally, also backed it.

Political and armed opposition groups have rejected the proposal, saying Russia has been unwilling or unable to get Assad and his Iranian-backed militia allies to respect past ceasefires. The Syrian government said it backed the proposal but said it would continue to fight what it called terrorist groups across the country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been a reduction in fighting across Syria since the deal came into force, but warned it was too early to say whether it would last.

“The reduction in violence must be clear and lasting,” Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.

The rebel commander said the general level of violence was reduced, but added: “Regime attempts (to advance) in the Hama countryside continue.”

With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian government has gained the military upper hand in the six-year conflict. The wide array of rebel groups include some supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

The Observatory said it had not recorded any deaths as a result of fighting in the four zones since midnight, but there had been some violations.

Breaches were seen mainly in northern Hama province, where Syrian government and allied forces have taken territory from rebels in recent weeks.

Fighter jets fired at the rebel-held village of al-Zalakiyat and nearby positions in the northern Hama countryside, where the combatants exchanged shelling, the Britain-based war monitoring group said.

The Observatory said government forces shelled the nearby towns of Kafr Zita and Latamneh. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian army.

Mohammed Rasheed, a spokesman for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group based in Hama, confirmed that fighting had broken out after midnight.

Rasheed said rebel-held Idlib province to the north of Hama was almost completely quiet, but the attacks, which included barrel bombs, were focused on the northern Hama frontline area.

“The bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before,” he told Reuters.


Iran and Turkey agreed on Thursday to a Russian proposal for de-escalation zones in Syria. The text of the memorandum was published by the Russian foreign ministry on Saturday.

The agreement said four de-escalation zones would be established in Syria for a period of six months which could be extended if the three signatory countries agree. Weaponry and air strikes were not to be used in those zones by combatants, the text said.

The agreement also included creating conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance and the return of displaced civilians to their homes.

This initiative is the most serious effort to reduce violence and shore up a ceasefire first declared in December since western states accused Damascus of a chemical attack in early April on rebel-held Idlib province.

The chemical incident prompted the U.S. to fire dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the attack had been launched, increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

The de-escalation zones appear intended to halt conflict in specific areas between government forces and rebels, and would potentially be policed by foreign troops.

The deal was negotiated at Russian-brokered talks in Astana which have taken place this year outside of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura hailed the plan as a step in the right direction towards a real cessation of hostilities. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was encouraged by the agreement.

The U.S. State Department voiced concerns about the deal, saying it was skeptical of Iran’s involvement as a guarantor of the accord and Damascus’ track record on previous agreements.

“We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor’,” the State Department said in a statement on Thursday. “Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it.”


The Russian defense ministry had said the agreement would come into force as of midnight Damascus time on Friday and encompass four zones.

The largest zone, in northern Syria, includes Idlib province and adjoining districts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia with a population of over 1 million, the memorandum text said.

The other three zones are in northern Homs province, the Eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus and along the Jordanian border in southern Syria.

But one part of the Eastern Ghouta zone, Qaboun, is exempt from the deal, Defence Ministry official Lieutenant-General Sergei Rudskoi said on Friday. He said this was because Qaboun contained the al-Qaeda-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

On Saturday the Observatory said rockets hit Qaboun where the government has been pressing an offensive for several weeks.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Editing by Tom Perry and Keith Weir)

Air strikes kill at least 12, damage hospital in Syria’s Idlib: medics, monitor

Damaged vehicles and hospital are pictured at a site hit by overnight airstrike, in Kafr Takharim, northwest of Idlib city, Syria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian or Russian air strikes killed more than a dozen people and severely damaged a hospital in and around a town in rebel-held Idlib province on Tuesday, local medical workers and a monitoring group said.

The attacks came as Syria’s air force and Russian jets intensified their bombardment of Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Idlib is an insurgent stronghold, one of the few large areas still under rebel control in the west of the country. Rebels and their families who have chosen to leave areas under government siege around Damascus in evacuation deals have headed for Idlib.

A spokesman at the hospital in Kafr Takharim in Idlib told Reuters an air strike hit its courtyard killing 14 people, including patients.

The Observatory said there were no deaths from the hospital strike, but that the bombardment had put it out of action.

Separate air strikes southwest of Kafr Takharim killed at least 12 people including civilians and rebel fighters, the Observatory said.

(Reporting by Ammar Abdullah and John Davison; Editing by Alison Williams)

Evacuations of besieged Syrians resume after two-day halt

A convoy of buses carrying evacuees from the two Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya arrive to government-controlled Aleppo, in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 12, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns, part of a swap deal between the warring sides, resumed on Friday after a 48-hour halt, state media and a war monitoring group said.

More than 35 busloads of civilians and pro-government fighters from the towns of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province arrived in Aleppo city, which is under government control, the war monitor said.

Thousands of evacuees from the two rebel-besieged Shi’ite towns had been stuck at a staging area outside Aleppo, where a bomb attack on an evacuation convoy killed scores of people last week.

In exchange, ten buses carrying rebels and their relatives from Zabadani left a second nearby transit point to cross into rebel territory, state-owned Ikhbariyah channel said.

The towns of Zabadani and Madaya, which had long been under siege by pro-government forces near Damascus, came under state rule this week after Sunni rebels and civilians were evacuated.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the 48-hour suspension was due to rebel demands for the government to free 750 prisoners as part of the agreement.

The Britain-based war monitor said it remained unclear if authorities had released any prisoners as the reciprocal evacuations resumed in the morning.

On Saturday, a bomb blast hit a convoy carrying evacuees from al-Foua and Kefraya killing at least 126 people, including more than 60 children, who were waiting on Aleppo’s outskirts.

Thousands of Syrians have been evacuated mostly out of besieged rebel areas in recent months, under deals between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel groups fighting for six years to unseat him.

U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said that there had been more evacuation deals this year than in previous years, but that they appeared driven more by military priorities than humanitarian concerns.

“They seem to follow a military logic, they do not seem to put the civilians at the heart of the agreement,” he told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.

The United Nations was not involved in the evacuation of the four towns, Egeland said. He added it was misleading to consider them voluntary evacuations when the towns had been besieged for years.

“Besiegement should end by being lifted,” he said, “not by places being emptied from people.”

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Richard Lough)