BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government troops gained control of the main water source for Damascus on Saturday, as the military worked to secure it and remove land mines in a major development that caps weeks of fighting with rebels in the area, according to Syrian state TV and opposition media.
Alaa Ibrahim, the local governor, said the evacuation of fighters to northern Syria was delayed for one day because of rain storms and freezing temperatures. Maintenance of the water facility will begin as soon as the military declares the area secure, officials said.
The development ends the standoff over Ain el-Fijeh village that restricted the water flow to nearly 5 million residents of the Damascus area for over a month. The fighting had also trapped tens of thousands of civilians in the Barada Valley area, where the water source is located.
Syrian state TV showed buses lined up to transport rebel fighters out of the village of Ain el-Fijeh, but Ibrahim said the evacuation will be delayed.
The village houses the water source with the same name, which was the major source of water for Damascus.
The opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces entered Ain el-Fijeh along with ambulances to transport the injured as part of a deal to end the fighting there. The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, said rebel fighters remain in other villages in the valley, including militants with the al-Qaida-linked affiliate in Efra, a village about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the water source.
The cease-fire, brokered by Russia and Turkey and in place since Dec. 30, was tested by the fighting in the valley. The fighting was sparked by government claims that rebels poisoned the water source at Ain el-Fijeh — a claim the rebels denied.
The deal also requires the evacuation of those rebel fighters who refuse to put down their weapons. The military media said about 1,200 fighters are expected to surrender their weapons, but it is not clear yet the final number of fighters to be evacuated.
As part of a goodwill gesture, the fighters raised the official Syrian flag, used by the government, over the facility to signal the deal was in place.
On Saturday, maintenance teams were inspecting the water facility at Ain el-Fijeh. Damascus residents have been struggling to deal with the water shortage since late December.
Syrian government and allied troops have been closing in on rebel-held areas around the capital in recent months. Similar agreements were reached with rebels in other suburbs of Damascus, who eventually capitulated under intense shelling and tight siege.
The issue of the Barada Valley was one of the main focuses of indirect talks between the rebels and the government in the Kazakh capital Astana last week. The talks were sponsored by Russia and Turkey and supported by Iran, and ended with a call to reinforce the cease-fire and put mechanisms in place to monitor violations.
Separately, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, a rebel stronghold that has been beset by infighting since Monday, a new coalition of insurgents was announced Saturday, effectively pitting the extremist al-Qaida-link group against its former ally, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group. The new merger, named The Levant Liberation Committee, includes al-Qaida-linked affiliate, Fatah al-Sham Front, and four other groups. It comes two days after a similar merger was announced, led by Ahrar al-Sham, and included at least three factions who took part in the talks in Astana. The talks concluded with calls for the rebels to dissociate themselves from al-Qaida's affiliate.
The new merger is likely to further inflame the rivalry between the insurgents. Further complicating the already volatile situation, the head of the new group is a defected member of Ahrar al-Sham.
Nour el-Din el-Zinki, another rebel group with strong presence in northern Syria, also joined the new committee.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.