Syria rebels hand over arms in new deal with regime: monitor

Beirut (AFP) –


Syrian rebels on Friday were surrendering their heavy weapons for the second day after agreeing with the government a new deal to withdraw from central towns, a war monitor said.

Opposition fighters agreed with regime forces and their allies to a ceasefire deal earlier this week for the rebel towns of Talbisseh, Rastan, and Al-Houla, which fall in Syria's central province of Homs.

"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 said.

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 told AFP.

The deal for the three rebel-controlled towns follows a similar pattern to other agreements recently reached across Syria, mostly around Damascus.

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 three towns were part of a "de-escalation zone" agreed one year ago by opposition supporter Turkey and regime allies Iran and Russia.

The total of 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 area where a deal was reached, has said it rejects the agreement and pledged to remain deployed on its front lines.

It is the third such transfer deal for Homs province, after thousands were bussed out in a pair of agreements for the city itself.