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story.lead_photo.caption The reopening of the M4 highway is part of a deal reached earlier this month between Turkey and Russia that stopped a Russia-backed government offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. (AP/SANA)

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkish and Russian troops will begin jointly patrolling a key highway in northwest Syria on Sunday as part of a fragile truce brokered by the countries, Turkey's defense minister said Friday.

Hulusi Akar made the announcement after Turkish and Russian officials ended four days of talks in Ankara over the technicalities of the cease-fire reached last week for Syria's Idlib province.

The cease-fire by Russia and Turkey -- which support the opposing sides in the Syria conflict -- called for the establishment of a security corridor along Syria's M4 highway, running east-west in Idlib, with joint patrols by Russian and Turkish troops.

Speaking to reporters, Akar said the Russian and Turkish delegations agreed to "set up joint coordination centers" for Idlib. The minister did not provide further details.

"Our hope is for the truce to rapidly become a permanent one," the minister said.

In rebel-held parts of Idlib, scores of people gathered in the town of Ariha on the M4 highway saying they reject patrols by Russian "occupiers" on the road, according to opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, and el-Dorar al-Shamiya, an activist collective.

The observatory said the protesters are setting up tents on the highway to prevent the opening of the road that has been closed since 2012.

Syria's Transportation Minister Ali Hammoud was quoted by state media as saying that parts of the highway under government control have been cleared for the reopening by removing blocks and barriers. He added that the highway is very important for business as it is a considered a main link between neighboring Iraq and the Mediterranean through Syria.

The truce halted a three-month air and ground campaign by the Syrian government against the rebel-held province. That offensive killed hundreds and sent 1 million people fleeing toward the Turkish border.

The Russian-backed Syrian government offensive made significant gains in Syria's last rebel stronghold. Turkey sent thousands of troops across the border to reinforce the rebels, leading to rare direct fighting between Syrian and Turkish troops.

The cease-fire deal also appeared to achieve Moscow's key goal of allowing the Syrian government to keep hold of the strategic north-south highway known as the M5. Syrian forces had captured its last segments in the latest offensive, which began in early December.

A Section on 03/14/2020

Print Headline: Russia, Turkey set joint patrols

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