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Syria rejects international forces in safe zones

Map locates the four Russian-proposed safe zones across Syria; 2c x 4 1/2 inches; 96.3 mm x 114 mm;

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria on Monday dismissed the idea of foreign forces patrolling four so-called de-escalation zones that are to be established under a deal struck by Russia, Iran and Turkey, suggesting Damascus would agree only to Russian “military police” who are already on the ground.

Syria planned to abide by the agreement signed in Kazakhstan last week, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in the Syrian capital, but he cautioned it was “premature” to say whether the deal would succeed.

“There will be no presence by any international forces supervised by the United Nations,” al-Moallem said. “The Russian guarantor has clarified that there will be military police and observation centers.”

Though he did not specify who the military police would be, he appeared to be referring to Russian observers already in Syria.

Al-Moallem also vowed that Syrian government forces would respond “decisively” to any violation by the rebels.

“There are still logistical details that will be discussed in Damascus and we will see the extent of commitment to this agreement,” al-Moallem said.

On another diplomatic track, the United Nations’ Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced plans to reconvene talks in Geneva between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition leaders May 16.

A statement from de Mistura’s office late Monday said he hoped the agreement struck in Kazakhstan would be fully implemented, to achieve “significant de-escalation in violence” and help underpin the political talks in the Swiss city.

The cease-fire deal went into effect over the weekend, bringing a general reduction in violence, but clashes continued, particularly in central Syria. There are still questions about how the agreement will be enforced.

Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, may deploy armed forces to secure the four so-called “de-escalation zones,” in what would amount to unprecedented coordination between the three regional powers.

The U.N. Security Council president says Russia wants a vote early this week on a resolution supporting the deal. Uruguay’s Ambassador Elbio Rosselli told reporters “there are consultations ongoing” on the text.

Several other council diplomats said a vote Monday or Tuesday — as Moscow is seeking — is highly unlikely, explaining that they need details on the zones.

The United States is not party to the de-escalation agreement. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. would take a close look at the proposal for “safe zones” in Syria, but he said the plan poses many unanswered questions, including whether it would be effective.

“We’ll look at the proposal, see if it can work,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Copenhagen, where he will attend a meeting of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group. “Will it affect the fight against ISIS? I think the international community is united in the sense of wanting to see ISIS put on its back foot.”

Al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said he hopes the agreement will, as a start, achieve a separation between Syrian armed opposition groups and extremist groups such as al-Qaida, saying the former must force the latter to leave the de-escalation zones.

But even if the agreement is enforced, it is unlikely to end the conflict. Despite several rounds of U.N.-mediated negotiations in Geneva, the government and opposition remain at odds over Assad’s future role in Syria.

Al-Moallem suggested government forces’ next target is Deir el-Zour, where IS militants are besieging parts of the eastern city that are under government control and are home to tens of thousands of people. He said the government aims to regain control of all of Syria, adding that areas bordering Iraq will be a priority.

Al-Moallem said the government’s alternative to stalled negotiations has been the implementation of “reconciliation agreements” around the country.

Such agreements have seen the surrender of rebel-held areas to government forces and their allies, often after a prolonged period of siege, in exchange for safe relocation to opposition-held areas elsewhere in the country.

As the foreign minister spoke to reporters, hundreds of rebels and their families left aboard buses from a besieged opposition-held neighborhood of Damascus for rebel-held areas in the country’s north, according to state TV and opposition activists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 1,500 people were expected to leave the Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh on Monday, and more in the coming weeks. Syrian state TV said some 60 buses and ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were on hand for the evacuations.

Barzeh came under siege last month, after government forces captured a major road near the area, separating it from rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Tens of thousands of people living in besieged areas around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — have surrendered under similar agreements in recent months, agreeing to relocate in what critics have said amounts to forced displacement.

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Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Copenhagen, Denmark; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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