Syrian rebels hand over arms, leave another town near Douma

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Syrian rebels in a town northeast of Damascus handed in their weapons and boarded buses to leave under an evacuation deal, state media reported on Thursday.

Fighters were to relocate with their families to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, effectively surrendering their town of Dumayr to the Syrian government.

The departure was set to involve 1,500 fighters from the Army of Islam rebel faction with 3,500 of their family members, said the state-run SANA news agency. Their destination was Jarablus, a town shared under Turkish and Syrian opposition control near the Syria-Turkey border.

Dumayr, in the Qalamoun mountains, is a minutes' drive away from the eastern Ghouta region, a former rebel enclave that came under full government control last week after a driving offensive that culminated in a suspected chemical weapons attack.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were still not able to reach the scene, 12 days after the suspected attack.

The April 7 attack prompted the United States, France, and Britain to strike at suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities. The three countries said they held the Syrian government and its ally Russia responsible for the attack.

Damascus and Moscow denied responsibility.

A U.N. security team touring the sites of the alleged attack on Tuesday, was shot at and subjected to a blast, said OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu.

The security team was supposed to give the all-clear for OPCW inspectors to follow, but their visit was put on hold pending the security situation, Uzumcu added.

Journalists visited Douma, where the suspected attack took place, a day before the U.N. security team. They were not exposed to any weapons fire.

Associated Press journalists spoke to witnesses who said they were overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine and experienced fainting during the April 7 assault.

First responders released videos purporting to show fatalities from the attack — lifeless bodies collapsed in an apartment, with foam around their mouths, a sign of asphyxiation.

The Army of Islam, which controlled Douma at the time of the attack, surrendered the town to the government days later.

Also Thursday, neighboring Iraq launched airstrikes inside Syria targeting militants from the Islamic State group.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office said Iraqi fighter jets launched "lethal" airstrikes against the extremists in an area along the Syria-Iraq border. The statement said the militants posed a threat to Iraq, without providing further details.

Syrian and Iraqi forces have driven IS from nearly all the territory the group once held, but the extremists have maintained a presence in the remote desert areas along the border. Iraq has carried out airstrikes in Syria against the group in the past.


Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.