2 Syrian rebel groups begin pulling weapons in Idlib area

BEIRUT (AP) — Two Syrian rebel groups began withdrawing their heavy weapons Saturday from a northwestern area of the country where Russia and Turkey have agreed to set up a demilitarized zone, opposition activists said.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Free Idlib Army and Failaq al-Sham started removing artillery and mortar pieces from areas close to the town of Maaret al-Numan.

There was no immediate confirmation from the two groups that are part of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front, a coalition of 12 rebel factions.

Bassam Haji Mustafa, a senior official with the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group, which is part of the NLF, said the withdrawal of heavy weapons began two days ago.

Last week, Failaq al-Sham said that it has no heavy weapons to withdraw from the area where the demilitarized zone is to be established by Oct. 15. The group said its heavy weapons are far from the front lines.

The Turkey-Russia deal was agreed last month to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian government forces on the area and calls for the removal of all members of Syrian radical groups from the demilitarized zone. It also calls for the removal of tanks, armored personnel carriers and rebel artillery weapons form the area.

The demilitarized zone will cover a stretch of about 15-20 kilometers, about 9-12 miles, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols in the zone.

Last month, two jihadi groups in Idlib — the al-Qaida-linked Horas al-Din, Arabic for Guardians of Religion, and Ansar al-Din, Arabic for Partisans of Religion — rejected the deal calling it a "great conspiracy" against insurgents.

However, the largest militant group in Idlib, the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, has not yet announced its position regarding the demilitarized zone.

Earlier Saturday, an explosive device detonated in a northern town held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killing four people, including two children.

The Observatory said the car bomb went off at the entrance to the industrial district of the town of Azaz.

It added that the explosion occurred near a tanker filled with fuel, causing a fire.

The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, also reported four people killed including two children, adding that the explosion occurred inside a shop that sells fuel.

Car bombs have been common since Syria's conflict began in 2011.

Northern Syria has been fraught with clashes between rival insurgent groups including al-Qaida-linked militants and Turkey-backed rebels.

On Friday, clashes broke out between al-Qaida-linked HTS and Turkey-backed Nour el-Din el-Zinki group in Aleppo province but the situation was calm on Saturday after the two groups reached a deal, according to activists.