Russia: 'Safe zone' in Syria's Ghouta demarcated
BEIRUT (AP) -- Russia's Defense Ministry said Saturday an agreement has been reached with the Syrian opposition on the boundaries for a de-escalation zone for the eastern suburbs of the capital Damascus while the Syrian army command said it has ceased military operations in several areas near the capital.
The announcements in Moscow and Damascus came after days of bombardment and airstrikes on the area that is known as eastern Ghouta. Activists reported relative calm in the afternoon in the area despite some violations.
The Russian ministry statement did not give details, but said the agreement includes the zone's borders as well as routes for delivery of humanitarian aid and free movement of civilians. It said the agreement was reached during talks in Cairo, with Egyptian mediation.
The zone is one of four proposed in a plan approved in May by Russia and Iran, which support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs rebels fighting his forces. Under the Russian plan, President Bashar Assad's air force would halt flights over designated areas across the war-torn country.
Violence had been reported in the "de-escalation zones" since the deal was struck more than two months ago. Until early Saturday, the eastern Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta have been subjected to shelling and airstrikes.
The Syrian command said in a statement carried by state TV that the cessation of operations began at noon local time Saturday. It gave no further details.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Ghouta-based activist Anas al-Dimashqi reported at least three airstrikes early Saturday on the suburbs of Douma and Ein Tarma.
"The situation is quiet now in Ghouta," al-Dimashqi said via text message, adding that it was not clear if this is the result of the Russian announcement.
The Observatory and al-Dimashqi later reported some violations including the shelling of the suburb of Harasta.
To the northwest of Damascus, Syrian troops and members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group pressed ahead in their offensive at border areas between the two countries, capturing territories from Syrian insurgents.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Hezbollah fighters and Syrian troops captured several strategic hills Saturday in areas between the Lebanese town of Arsal and the Syrian village of Fleeta.
SCMM said the Syrian air force took part in the operations, adding that dozens of al-Qaida-linked militants have been killed or wounded since the offensive early Friday.
Pro-Hezbollah activists said on social media that about 15 Lebanese fighters had been killed in two days of fighting. Lebanon's LBC TV gave the names of nine fighters whose funerals will be held in Beirut Saturday.
The Lebanese army said the former deputy mayor of Arsal was killed while on a mediation mission with al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria. The army said in a statement that Ahmad Fleeti was killed Saturday near the border town after al-Qaida-linked militants hit his vehicle with a missile.
Hezbollah has fought in Syria's civil war since 2013 backing President Bashar Assad's forces.
In northern Syria, opposition activists said the rebel-held province of Idlib has been calm after two main militant groups agreed to end days of fighting that killed scores.
The fighting between the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaida-linked Hay'at Tahrir al Sham - Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee - that is also known as HTS, broke out on Tuesday in several areas and focused on the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the border with Turkey.
The Observatory said Saturday that calm has prevailed in Idlib since sunset Friday. It added that four days of fighting left 92 dead, including 15 civilians.
Ahrar al-Sham and HTC had issued statements saying a cease-fire agreement had been reached and that both sides will free detainees.
They said Bab al-Hawa will be run by a civilian administration.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.