Maintenance stems clashes over Syrian capital water source
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BEIRUT — Maintenance workers arrived in Syria's rebel-held valley near Damascus Friday to fix the water facility there,
For days, negotiations stalled, failing to restore the water flow to the capital restricted since Dec. 22 and to end a government offensive there to uproot rebels in control of the area for years. The U.N. says the capital has suffered a water shortage that has affected nearly 5.5 million residents. The fighting has trapped nearly 100,000 residents of the opposition-held valley.
A cease-fire that went into effect on Dec. 30 was threatened by the ongoing violence. Rebel groups threatened to withdraw from planned talks because of the violations.
By late Friday afternoon, however, the opposition Wadi Barada Media Center posted pictures of maintenance equipment arriving in the water-rich Barada Valley. The local governor told Syrian state TV a deal had been reached, and water would soon flow back into Damascus. He said it could resume as early as Saturday.
In Ankara, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the talks scheduled to take place in Astana, Kazakhstan, will take place on time— on Jan. 23. Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, brokered the cease-fire with Russia, an ally of the Syrian government.
The ceasefire "in spite of all violations by the (Syrian) regime, seems to be holding," Kalin told reporters. "Now the representatives of the opposition and (Syrian) regime will come together and discuss. The general principles to which we subscribe are ending the fight, keeping Syria's territorial integrity and clearing Syria of terrorists."
Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that shelling and fighting had resumed in the area. It was not clear if the maintenance crew had withdrawn. But with darkness setting in, it was unlikely maintenance would take place.
Earlier on Friday, the Syrian army and the opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces had made new territorial gains in the Barada Valley, capturing the village of Basima after heavy airstrikes and shelling.
The opposition has long controlled the Barada Valley northwest of Damascus through which the river of the same name flows to the capital. Recapturing the valley would mark a new government victory, despite the cease-fire.
Opposition members have been meeting for days in Turkey. One opposition representative there said Turkey is keen on making the Astana summit a success, and is working with the Syrian groups to ensure the cease-fire doesn't crumble. In an informal proposal drafted Friday, the opposition groups called for an end to the fighting in the Barada Valley and other areas before a delegation is formed. The opposition representative spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed door consultations.
"They are not conditions but are procedural points. The (truce) agreement in Ankara states that there should be a cease-fire in all of Syria except in areas where there is Daesh," he said referring to potential stumbling blocks, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Previous talks to restore the Barada Valley water flow and impose a cease-fire there faltered, according to rebel groups, because the government demanded fighters surrender and evacuate the area. Other government offensives have succeeded in evacuating other parts of Syria and areas near the capital after a tight siege and a punishing bombing campaign.
The government and the opposition have traded blamed for the recent standoff.
The Wadi Barada Media Center said government and Russian aircraft had bombed the Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility, puncturing its fuel depots and contaminating the water stream. Damascus officials denied attacking the facility and said they were forced to shut off its water supply after opposition forces poured gasoline into the river.
Underscoring the negotiation grind, the two sides interpreted Friday's agreement differently.
Fuad Abu Hattab, an exiled resident of Barada Valley who is part of the opposition group following the talks, said the agreement would not force anyone to leave the valley nor mean Syrian soldiers taking control of the area. The maintenance equipment would enter the area accompanied by civil police to protect it, he said.
But briefing reporters, local governor Alaa Ibrahim said fighters would hand in their weapons and that those who refused would be move to Idlib province — the opposition stronghold in the north.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, also said only policemen would protect the station and that rebel fighters would remain.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.