Kurds set free nearly 300 IS-linked Syrians

IDLIB, Syria: Photo shows blood amongst the rubble, debris, and broken furniture at the scene of a reported suicide attack on a restaurant in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Idlib. — AFP

BEIRUT: A Syrian jihadist group linked to Al-Qaeda killed 21 regime and allied forces yesterday near Idlib province, in one of the deadliest breaches of a six-month-old truce deal, a monitor said. "At dawn, 21 fighters from the regime forces or allied militia were killed in an attack by Ansar Al-Tawhid jihadists," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Five jihadists were also killed," Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

Ansar al-Tawhid has ties to the larger Hurras Al-Deen group, which is also active in the area. Both are considered semi-officials franchises of Al-Qaeda in Syria. The area of Idlib and small parts of the adjacent provinces of Hama and Aleppo are mostly controlled by the rival Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organization. HTS is led by fighters who formerly belonged to Al-Qaeda's ex-affiliate in Syria. A military source quoted by state news agency SANA confirmed soldiers had been killed and wounded in an attack on their positions near Idlib province.

Loyalists forces had killed some assailants, the source added without giving precise figures. Referring to the attack, the foreign ministry said Syria "will not allow terrorists and those who are behind them to carry on with their attacks against innocent civilians and the armed forces". Yesterday's deadly assault was carried out against regime positions in the village of Masasna, in the north of Hama province, the Observatory said. "It was one of the highest casualty figures among regime ranks since the Putin-Erdogan deal," the Observatory's Abdel Rahman said.

He was referring to an agreement reached in the Russian resort of Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the September 17 deal, Turkey was supposed to exert its influence over anti-regime groups in the Idlib region to get them to pull back their fighters and heavy weapons from a demilitarized zone. The agreement was meant to stave off a planned offensive by the regime and its Russian backers that aid groups feared could spark the eight-year-old Syrian conflict's worst humanitarian crisis yet.

The government assault on the last major bastion of forces opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad's rule has indeed been held off but the deal's provisions have not been implemented and the de facto truce looks shakier than ever. Since the Sochi agreement, HTS has consolidated its grip on the Idlib province and Turkey appears to be in no position to deliver on its commitment. Breaches of the demilitarized zone have spiked in recent days. Another 20 regime and allied forces were killed in three days of clashes about a week ago.

300 IS-linked Syrians
Meanwhile, nearly 300 Syrians suspected of belonging to the Islamic State jihadist group have been freed because they have "no blood on their hands", Kurdish authorities who were holding them said. Their release was announced late Saturday by the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration of northern Syria, which said in a statement that 283 Syrians had been set free.

Tribal chiefs and other local officials had lobbied for their release. The statement said they were men who "have no Syrian blood on their hands", suggesting that they did not take part in any fighting. "They had lost their way… violated the traditions of the Syrian society and the law, and some of them had been deceived… but they remain our Syrian children," it said.

Releasing them is a gesture of "cooperation, fraternity and clemency," said the statement posted on the website of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The prisoners were released in several areas of northern Syria held by Kurds, including the city of Raqa, which was the de facto Syrian capital of the IS "caliphate", the statement added. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said it was not the first release of IS-linked prisoners by Kurdish authorities, but the number was particularly large this time.

The SDF are holding hundreds of alleged foreign jihadists, as well as women and children related to suspected IS members. Syria's Kurds have long urged their home countries to take the detainees back, but nations have been reluctant. Kurds have played a key role in battling IS in Syria. The SDF have now cornered the jihadists in their last stretch of territory near the border with Iraq in a final bid to flush them out. In November 2013, Kurdish groups in Syria announced the establishment of a semi-autonomous region divided into three zones, following victories against rebels and jihadists.- Agencies