Thousands head home in Syria's Idlib after deal: monitor

Beirut (AFP) –


Thousands of residents of Syria's last major rebel bastion Idlib headed home within 48 hours of the announcement of a deal to avoid a government offensive to retake it, a war monitor said on Wednesday.

As air strikes intensified earlier this month, the looming threat of a Russian-backed assault had prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee areas near the front line.

But the announcement of an agreement between Russia and rebel supporter Turkey to create a demilitarised buffer zone along the front line as the first step in a wider settlement prompted many to head home, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Around 7,000 people have returned to their towns and villages since the announcement of the deal on Monday, especially in the southeast of Idlib and the north of (neighbouring) Hama," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

At a camp for the displaced in the town of Atme on the Turkish border on Tuesday, dozens of Syrians held up banners welcoming the agreement.

"We will return, God permitting," said one.

"Thank you to our Turkish brothers," said another, signed by the people of a town in the north of Hama province that had been bombarded in recent weeks.

One of the demonstrators, Marhaf al-Jadou, said he was tired of running from the shelling and air strikes.

"Enough of being displaced and sitting in tents. We want to return to our homes and our children to their schools," he said.

The United Nations has given cautious backing to the Russian-Turkish agreement.

It "will allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for the saving of civilian lives," UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali al-Zaatari, said on Tuesday.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions more since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Around half of the three million residents of the rebel zone around Idlib have fled from other parts of Syria recaptured by government forces in previous offensives.