Syrian jihadists vow to keep fighting as deadline looms

FILE Turkish forces are seen in a convoy on a main highway between Damascus and Aleppo near the town of Saraqib in Syria's northern Idlib province on 29 August 2018

Under a deal reached by opposition backer Turkey and regime ally Russian Federation last month, rebels and jihadists alike were meant to have pulled out all heavy arms from the horseshoe-shaped zone by October 10.

The accord is just the latest in a series of truces in Syria's seven-year conflict, which has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions.

Hours before the deadline, HTS issued a statement vowing to continue fighting.

The biggest threat to the demilitarized zone's success has been the presence of designated terrorist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which evolved from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

"We value the efforts of all those striving - at home and overseas - to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and the perpetration of massacres in it", the terror group said in its statement, published via social media.

"But at the same time, we warn of the deceitfulness of the Russian occupier".

A rebel fighter carries his weapon as he walks past the turret of a damaged tank at the Mastouma military base, after they seized it, in Idlib May 20, 2015.

All factions in the planned demilitarised area were to hand over their heavy weapons by October 10, and radical groups were expected to withdraw by October 15, according to the agreement.

On Sunday, mortar shells were fired from the zone onto the nearby Hama Province, killing two Syrian soldiers, UK-based so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Russia wants a diplomatic solution to seal its military success", said Dmitri Trenin, director of the independent Carnegie Moscow Center.

HTS likely "tried to gain time by neither explicitly refusing nor accepting the deal" between Russian Federation and Turkey, he said.

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According to Sam Heller, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, the HTS announcement appeared to be a "tacit agreement of the Sochi deal".

He said intermittent regime shelling had been hitting the planned buffer for days, but the deal does not require government forces to withdraw any of their weapons.

Idlib's other main rebel faction, a Turkish-aligned alliance of groups known as the National Liberation Front, has repeatedly expressed its support for the agreement.

The lion's share of Idlib is held by HTS, as well as more hardline jihadists like Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Islam.

Hurras al-Deen has publicly rejected the agreement.

Observers have said that getting it to execute the deal's second half would be much more challenging.

But as the clock ticked down, HTS did not explicitly say whether it supported or rejected the September 17 accord between government ally Russian Federation and militant backer Turkey to stave off a government attack on Idlib.

"The ramifications of that move could be vast", he added.

Turkey played an active role in persuading terrorists in Idlib province to agree to the deal, fearing that an offensive operation by Syrian forces might send another massive wave of immigrants toward the Turkish border.

On Friday, residents around Idlib received warning messages on their mobile phones from the Syrian army.

"Get away from the fighters".

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