US-backed forces reach edge of IS-held town
BEIRUT, April 15, (Agencies): A bomb blast hit a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria on Saturday, killing and wounding dozens of people evacuated from two Shi’ite villages the day before in a deal between warring sides. The agreement had stalled, leaving thousands of people from both government-besieged and rebel-besieged areas stranded at two transit points on the city’s outskirts, before the explosion occurred. Pro-Damascus media outlets said a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb and killed at least 22 people. The British- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll was at least 24. Footage on state TV showed bodies lying next to charred buses with their windows blown out, and vehicles in flames.
The blast hit buses in the Rashidin area on Aleppo’s outskirts. The vehicles had been waiting since Friday to cross from rebel-held territory into the government-controlled city itself. The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province. They had left under a deal where, in exchange, hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families were granted safe passage from Madaya, a government- besieged town near Damascus. But a delay in the agreement had left all those evacuated stuck at transit points on Aleppo’s outskirts since late on Friday. Residents of al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting in the Rashidin area. The rebels and residents of Madaya, near Damascus, were waiting at the government-held Ramousah bus garage, a few miles away.
They were to be transported to the opposition stronghold of Idlib province. People waiting in the Ramousah garage heard the blast, and said they feared revenge attacks by pro-government forces. They circulated a statement on social media imploring “international organisations” to intervene so the situation did not escalate. The evacuation deal is one of several over recent months that has seen President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies. The deals are unpopular with the Syrian opposition, who say they amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centres in the west of the country. They are also causing demographic changes because those who are displaced are usually Sunni Muslims, like most of the opposition. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and is supported by Shi’ite regional allies. It was unclear who carried out Saturday’s bombing attack.
Meanwhile, US-backed fighters have reached the outskirts of a key jihadist-held town in northern Syria as part of an offensive against the Islamic State group’s bastion Raqa, a monitor said Saturday. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish alliance supported by US-led coalition air strikes and special forces advisers, surrounded Tabqa in early April and have cut its main supply routes. The town and a vast nearby dam are considered key prizes in the broader offensive for Raqa, the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate”, about 55 kms (34 miles) to the east. An SDF military source said Saturday that clashes were “at their height” and that the alliance’s forces were “trying to penetrate the town from the east and west”.
The alliance was reported to have advanced overnight after driving the jihadists from two areas just southeast and southwest of the town. SDF fighters are within a few hundred metres (yards) of Tabqa, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group. He said heavy clashes were under way around the two suburbs as IS attempted to counter-attack. The SDF launched its campaign for Raqa in November and has since captured most of the surrounding province. It has been backed by US-led coalition air strikes, along with advisers and even an American Marines artillery battery. Raqa was home to around 240,000 residents before 2011 and more than 80,000 people have fled to the city from other parts of the country since the start of Syria’s civil war. Tabqa sits on a key supply route into Raqa and served as an important IS command base, housing the group’s main prison.
Syria’s war has left more than 320,000 people dead since it began with protests in 2011 that were brutally repressed. It has since drawn in jihadist groups as well as regional and international powers in a complex multi-sided conflict. The fighting has caused millions to flee their homes and triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis. On Saturday a car bomb blast killed several people at a transit point for Syrians being transferred out of two besieged government-held towns under an evacuation deal, the Observatory said. It said the explosion took place at Rashidin, west of second city Aleppo, where buses were waiting to transport thousands of people who left Fuaa and Kafraya a day earlier. More than 7,000 people who had been under crippling siege for more than two years left four Syrian towns on Friday under a delayed evacuation deal brokered by Iran and Qatar.
Around 5,000 people piled onto buses leaving Fuaa and Kafraya while a further 2,200 were evacuated from rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani. But thousands were stuck on the road Saturday in rebel-held Rashidin, west of Aleppo. An AFP correspondent in Rashidin, where 5,000 evacuees from the two government-held towns were awaiting onward transport, said the buses had yet to move 30 hours after the operation began. Around 2,220 evacuees from Madaya and Zabadani were similarly blocked at a transit point in government- held territory, one of them told AFP by telephone.