Civilians leave IS-area in eastern Syria after evacuation deal: monitor

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2017 7:00 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of civilians left a besieged Islamic State enclave in central Syria after the Syrian government and Islamic State reached an evacuation deal, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

The Syrian army could not be reached for comment on the report. An insurgent source in northwestern Syria said the civilians - mostly shepherds - from the enclave, located in Hama and Homs provinces, had arrived in rebel-held Idlib province.

The Syrian army - supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias - isolated the pocket, Islamic State's last presence in central Syria, in August during its eastwards offensive against the jihadists.

The regime and Islamic State finalized the deal on Thursday, allowing IS fighters, their families and civilians who wanted to leave the pocket and cross government areas into areas held by Islamist groups, the Observatory reported.

Some crossed to areas held by Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance that includes the former Nusra Front group, in northern Hama and eastern Idlib provinces. Others moved to camps set up west of the enclave in government-held areas in accordance with tribal deals, the Britain-based monitor said.

Last week jihadists launched an offensive against government-held parts of northern Hama province, advancing south from rebel-held Idlib. The Syrian government has responded with strikes on rebel-held positions. [nL5N1M21PU]

The attack came after Russia, Iran and Turkey struck a tripartite deal last week to deploy an observer force on the edge of a designated "de-escalation zone" in Idlib. The Islamist militants who hold sway in Idlib rejected the diplomacy efforts.

The civilians leaving the IS-held enclave were evacuated to areas held by Islamist militants, the Observatory said.

The Syrian army's main focus has been its offensive against Islamic State in the east of the country, where the Islamist group is also facing an offensive by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Gareth Jones)