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Syria Reclaims Damascus Water Source From Rebels

Syrian armed forces appear to have retaken the contested Barada Valley area north of Damascus, the capital’s main source of water, signaling a possible end to a war-induced shortage that has left millions of inhabitants thirsty and dirty for six weeks.

Syrian government news media reported on Monday that hundreds of rebel fighters and their families had evacuated the Barada Valley, under an agreement reached on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an outside monitoring group, corroborated the government account, saying ambulances and buses had been seen taking evacuees to other rebel-held areas, and that government soldiers and allied militia fighters were in control.

The Barada Valley agreement expanded areas of Syria adhering to a tenuous nationwide cease-fire negotiated by Russia, the Syrian government’s chief ally, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups that have been fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The agreement also further winnowed the amount of territory occupied by insurgents after their evacuation last month from eastern Aleppo, the northern Syrian city, after a lengthy siege.

Russia and Turkey have since taken a far more active role in diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict, convening talks last week in Astana, Kazakhstan. Another round is tentatively scheduled for late February.

It was not immediately clear how soon the re-establishment of government control in the Barada Valley would ease the severe water shortage in the Damascus area, where roughly 5.5 million people live.

The main water-pumping facilities in the valley were damaged in fighting, slowing or stopping water flow since late December. Syrian officials were quoted in state news media on Sunday as saying they hoped to restore the flow soon.

The government has tried to ease the water crisis by trucking supplies to communal collection points from wells around Damascus. The United Nations helped by overhauling 120 wells to meet about one-third of the city’s daily needs.

Nonetheless, the shortage was acute for many residents of Damascus, which had largely been spared from the worst of the war that has ravaged the country for nearly six years.

Word of the developments in Barada Valley came in recent days as rumors swirled about the health of Mr. Assad, 51, who has remained a relatively reclusive figure. The speculation, spread by some Arab news sites, suggested the Syrian leader may have suffered a stroke.

The Syrian government called the rumors unfounded and said Mr. Assad has been working normally.

As if to emphasize the denial, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that Mr. Assad had a friendly phone conversation on Monday with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who shares Mr. Assad’s antipathy for what both regard as arrogant Western powers, particularly the United States. The news agency said Mr. Assad “appreciated Venezuela’s stances and President Maduro for supporting Syria.”

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