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U.N.-backed truce deal reached for key Syrian front lines

BEIRUT -- A U.N.-backed truce deal has been reached for two key Syrian front lines that will see the transfer of thousands of Shiites and Sunni fighters from one area to another, activists and a militant cleric said Friday.

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The deal will end months of fighting and besieging of civilians. The controversial transfer will allow a group of Sunni insurgents operating under a coalition called Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, and their families safe passage out of the Zabadani area, along the Lebanese border.

In exchange, 10,000 Shiites, civilians and wounded pro-government fighters from two villages in northern Idlib province will be allowed to leave, said Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi militant cleric living in Syria.

The Sunni insurgents will head from Zabadani to the rebel-controlled Idlib province, while the Shiites will settle in the government-controlled suburb of Damascus, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

If implemented, the agreement would be another rare example of international diplomacy successfully brokering an end to fighting in specific areas in Syria. The U.N. previously brokered a cease-fire in 2014 to end over two years of siege on the central city of Homs.

But the deal would also underline concerns about forced demographic changes in the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, which has already displaced nearly half of Syria's pre-war population.

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The opposition has accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's government of working with its allies, including Iran, on moving populations around to empty government-held areas of Sunnis. The insurgents against Assad are largely Sunnis, including foreign fighters from around the region and elsewhere who joined the war.

U.N. spokeswoman Jessy Chahine told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.N. facilitated contacts between the different parties but would not elaborate on details of the deal.

The Observatory said the six-month truce deal would also include the release of rebel detainees. Turkey and Iran also sponsored the deal, it added.

Talks have been ongoing since August to end fighting in the Zabadani area between pro-government troops, including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Syrian rebels, and the sieges of the two Shiite villages in Idlib.

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In a video interview posted on social media Friday, al-Muhaysini, who is linked to al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, which is a member of the Army of Conquest, said the group's fighters and other rebels would be allowed to leave Zabadani with their weapons.

In response to the pro-government attack on Zabadani, Islamic militants laid siege on the two Shiite villages, Foua and Kfarya, in rebel-controlled Idlib province.

The cleric said the rebels had to accept the negotiated transfer because of the "reality on the ground," adding that the rebels had been besieged for months and were running out of ammunition.

But he suggested the transfer would not be permanent, adding that the insurgents are ready to reverse it by force. "Demographic changes are not that simple," he said.

The Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman, whose group relies on a network of activists on the ground, also criticized attempts to large scale population transfer.

"We are for cease-fire, but against any demographic change," he said.

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