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Militants quit Syria village after deal
December 31, 2017
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BEIRUT: Dozens of Syrian militants and their families departed aboard buses from an area besieged by government forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights early Saturday, part of a deal to clear yet another district from insurgents.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said 153 people, including 106 fighters, left the village of Beit Jin early Saturday towards the southern province of Daraa.

The Ibaa news agency of the Al Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee said six buses carrying fighters and their families arrived in rebel-held parts of Daraa province.

On Friday, Syria’s state news agency Sana said some 300 Al Qaida-linked militants and their families would be sent to Daraa and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The evacuation allows the government to reassert control over Beit Jin near the Golan Heights that were captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war.

Separately, Syrian regime forces advanced against militants on Saturday on the edge of the northwestern province of Idlib, the last outside government control, a monitor and the state news agency said.

Government and allied forces backed by Russian warplanes have since Monday been fighting mostly militant fighters in an area straddling the border between Idlib and Hama provinces.

The fighting, which could signal the start of a major offensive to seize Idlib province from rebels dominated by a former Al Qaeda affiliate, escalated on Thursday.

On Saturday, regime troops advanced, seizing several villages and surrounding areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

Sana said regime forces had taken control of five villages, areas and “strategic hills” in the northeast of Hama province.

A correspondent said civilians continued to flee areas near the battle zone, heading north towards the provincial capital of Idlib with their belongings piled high on pick-up trucks.

“We were the target of strikes more than once -- we couldn’t stay,” said Abu Ahmed, a man in his sixties from the southeast of Idlib province, fleeing with his family in a pickup.

“I don’t know how to say how I feel, leaving my land and home at my age. We are leaving without even knowing where we’re headed.”

In the Maaret Al Numan area, some people have put up tents, pots and pans piled at the entrance flaps.

“We escaped for the sake of the children. They were terrified by air raids and strikes,” said Abu Khaled, a bearded man in his thirties wearing a red and white checkered keffiyeh headscarf.

The father-of-four, originally from Hama province, had already fled once with his family -- to Idlib, where they lived in a camp for the displaced.

The forces of Syrian General Suheil Hassan, on the front lines of the battle against the Daesh militant group in the east of the country, are leading the Idlib offensive, the Observatory said.

“After finishing off Daesh, the regime’s forces are concentrating their operations on Idlib’s militants,” Abdel Rahman said.

Since Thursday, the clashes have killed 32 soldiers and allied members of paramilitary units, as well as 29 rebels from militant groups or from former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al Sham, the Observatory said.

Twenty-one civilians have also died.

Government forces’ first aim to take control of the southeast of Idlib province, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Agence France-Presse

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