Syrian troops to start unilateral cease-fire in Idlib


This photo released by the opposition Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, also known as White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a civil defense worker inspecting destroyed buildings after airstrikes hit the town of Jarjnas, in Idlib province, Syria. Syrian opposition activists said government warplanes have struck towns and villages in the northwestern province of Idlib including one near a Turkish observation post. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces will soon begin a unilateral cease-fire in northwestern Idlib province, Russia’s military said Friday, as hundreds of protesters were met with tear gas marching toward a border crossing with Turkey demanding that Ankara either open the border for refugees or work on stopping the Syrian army’s advance.

The protest and cease-fire announcement came after weeks of a crushing offensive by Syrian troops on the last remaining rebel stronghold, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, many of whom were already without shelter.

A similar cease-fire at the beginning of the month lasted a few days, after which the government offensive resumed and forces captured the town of Khan Sheikhoun and all rebel-held towns of villages in nearby Hama province.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive since April 30 against rebel-held areas forcing more than half a million people to flee, many of them toward the border with Turkey farther north.

Turkey opened its borders to Syrians in April 2011, a month after the country’s crisis began, and is currently home to 3.6 million people who fled the civil war, now in its ninth year. In recent years, Turkey has taken measures to slow the flow of refugees and has been sending some back home.

The Russian military reconciliation center said the cease-fire will go into effect Saturday morning at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT).

The Russian report comes as government forces have intensified their offensive over the past weeks. On Friday, Syrian troops captured several hills and small villages southeast of Idlib as they appear to be trying to take as much ground before the cease-fire goes into effect.

The Russian military called on the opposition to end “provocations” and engage in peaceful settlement. Russia is a main backer of Syrian government forces, while Turkey backs the opposition.

The announcement came as hundreds of protesters in Idlib marched toward a border crossing with Turkey demanding that Ankara either open the border or demand an end to attacks by the government.

Opposition activists said Turkish borders guards fired tear gas at the protesters.

Speaking after Friday prayers in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the fighting in Idlib was forcing Syrians to migrate. “They are coming towards us and we need to be vigilant, we need to be cautious, and we have taken all the necessary precautions,” he said.

“It would be a lie if we said the developments in Idlib are at the point we want,” Erdogan said, adding the military was prepared with tanks and artillery and Turkey’s 12 observation posts in Idlib were ready at all times.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russia has guaranteed Turkish observation posts in Idlib would not be attacked. Syrian troops have been surrounding a Turkish observation post in the village of Morek since last week.

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