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Idlib frontline: Syrian rebels are withdrawing heavy weaponry

Rebel groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, have removed artillery along the agreed demilitarised zone in Syria's Idlib
Ceasefire deal also foresees rebel groups leaving the area by 15 October (Reuters)

Syrian rebels completed the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline in Idlib on Monday, under a deal between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarised zone, the state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

The development comes ahead of Wednesday's cut-off date for all rebels to withdraw heavy arms from the 15- to 20-kilometre demilitarised area ringing the Idlib region.

The creation of a buffer zone is central to an agreement reached last month by Russia and Turkey, which is aimed at staving off a massive assault on Idlib by the Syrian government.

The deal also foresees rebel groups leaving the area by 15 October.

According to the London-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham "and other less influential jihadist groups have withdrawn their heavy weapons from large areas of the demilitarised zone" ringing Idlib province.

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HTS, which is led by former al-Qaeda fighters, has yet to comment on its reported withdrawal or announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.

According to the Britain-based Observatory, the pullout quietly began two days ago.

"Until now, heavy weapons have been removed from northern Hama and eastern Idlib" located in the proposed zone, Abdel Rahman said.

The Idlib region includes most of the province of the same name, as well as adjacent parts of the Hama and Aleppo provinces.

In recent weeks, Turkey has deployed troops at "observation posts" it set up in rebel-held areas of Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo.

A local source close to HTS said Ankara's actions demonstrated that Turkey, Russia or Iran do not plan to break the deal.

"The presence of Turkish forces and their posts will prevent any military action," the source said.

"So (HTS), like other factions, is moving heavy weapons and reinforcing its positions according to the agreement."

The source confirmed each faction "will remain in its position," indicating that HTS and the other groups were "ready and prepared" to repel any attack by the government.

HTS and other hardliners hold a large part of Idlib province and the proposed demilitarised zone, while the National Liberation Front is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the area.

On Monday, the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) completed withdrawing heavy arms from the zone, according to Turkish state media.

The start of the NLF pullout was confirmed to AFP by its spokesman Naji Mustafa.

Despite progress in implementing the terms of the deal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday said the arrangement would not become permanent.

"The agreement is a temporary measure through which the state has realised many achievements on the ground, starting with stemming the bloodshed," he was quoted as saying by state news agency SANA.

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