Militant heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham holds most of province, has yet to announce stance on buffer zone deal
Syrian rebels said on Saturday they have begun withdrawing heavy arms from a planned buffer zone in northwestern Idlib province, ahead of a deadline to set up the demilitarised area.
The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) "has started pulling out its heavy weapons from the zone," the rebel coalition's spokesman, Naji Mustafa, told AFP.
The buffer zone, agreed last month between rebel backer Ankara and government ally Moscow, aims to separate government fighters from the numerous rebel and militant forces of the Idlib region.
The accord aims to stave off a heavy government assault on the last major rebel bastion by creating a 15-to-20km buffer zone ringing the area. The United Nations had warned that such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about three million people.
All rebels in the demilitarised zone must withdraw heavy arms by 10 October and radical groups must leave by 15 October.
— SouthFront (@southfronteng) October 6, 2018
"The process of withdrawing heavy weapons began this morning and will continue for a number of days," a rebel group commander told Reuters.
He said the NLF will extract its heavy weaponry - such as rocket launchers and artillery vehicles - and take them 20km from the contact line between rebels and government forces.
"Light and medium weapons and heavy machine guns up to 57mm will remain in place," he said.
The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) holds most of the province.
The HTS has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.
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Fighting erupted on Friday between Ankara-backed rebels and HTS hardliners near the planned demilitarisation zone, a monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting first began between HTS, led by former al-Qaeda fighters, and Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebels in the town of Kafr Halab.
HTS had reportedly been trying to arrest a local commander in the town on the western edge of Aleppo province, near the administrative border with Idlib.
"Zinki sent reinforcements to the area, and the clashes expanded to several areas and the National Liberation Front joined in," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Britain-based Observatory said HTS had taken two towns, including Kafr Halab. At least three civilians, two NLF fighters and an HTS member were killed, the monitor said.