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Turkey proposing to evacuate Syrian rebels from Idlib, says report

To thwart major assault, Turkey offers to evacuate members of 12 groups who would hand over arms to rebels backed by Ankara, says Daily Sabah
Syrian fighters spar in mock battle at graduation ceremony for new HTS members in Idlib last month (AFP)

Ankara has drawn up a plan to offer armed rebel groups safe passage out of the Syrian province of Idlib in a bid to avert the bloodshed of a major assault by Damascus, a pro-government newspaper reported on Friday.

As the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran meet in Tehran on Friday to try and find a solution to the seven-year Syrian conflict, Ankara - which is wary about an attempt by Bashar al-Assad's forces to retake the last rebel bastion of Idlib - has drawn up a plan to avert an assault, Turkey's Daily Sabah reported. 

According to the plan, 12 armed groups - including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib - would lay down their arms and be evacuated from the province, the newspaper said, without revealing its sources. 

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The groups would be offered safe passage to a buffer zone, under the surveillance of so-called moderate rebels on condition they hand over weapons to a loose coalition of groups backed by Ankara, it continued.

Foreign fighters in the group would be allowed to return to their home countries if they wish, Sabah said. 

But the groups who refused to disarm and be evacuated would be targeted by the counter-terror operations. 

As in other regions taken by Ankara-backed rebels, Turkey will later train a rebel force to ensure Idlib's security. 

The plan will also secure the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province and mineral deposits in the region, it said. 

Hundreds of civilians, many already displaced from their homes in Syria, have fled Idlib this week (AFP)
Turkey, which has already listed al-Nusra and al-Qaeda as terror groups, added HTS to the list last month.

The report cames as air strikes hit parts of Idlib province on Friday, according to a UK-based activist group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several air strikes hit the southern Idlib countryside in the morning, breaking an overnight period of calm.

Among them were positions of the HTS and Ahrar al-Sham groups, the observatory said.

They destroyed one Ahrar al-Sham post, killing one of its fighters and wounding 14 others in the area of Hobait, it said.

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A shepherd was also killed and four other people wounded in the bombardment, the observatory said, although it was not immediately clear if they were fighters or civilians.

"The aim was to destroy rebel fortifications," said observatory head Rami Abdurrahman.

Russian warplanes then carried out a second wave of strikes on the same target, preventing rescue workers from extracting victims from the rubble, he said.

Ankara fears a major assault on Idlib could spark an influx of refugees across its borders, and warned a military solution would only cause "disaster". 

It has carried out intense negotiations for weeks with Russia. 

Analysts say Ankara could be prepared to accept a limited Russian-backed Syrian government offensive against hard-line groups, even if it leaves the question of the long-term control of the province open for now.

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