Syrian official says deal reached to fix Damascus water supply

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian provincial governor said on Wednesday the government and rebels had agreed on a plan to repair damage to a spring in the Wadi Barada area that supplies water to the capital, state television reported.

The report could not be immediately confirmed with rebel fighters. The local media office for activists in rebel-held Wadi Barada, where the spring is located, denied any agreement had been reached between rebels and the government.

The spring was knocked out of service in late December, reducing water supplies to the 70 percent of residents of Damascus and surrounding areas that it serves.

The government and rebel groups in Wadi Barada, a mountainous valley about 20 km (10 miles) northwest of Damascus, agreed for technicians to enter the damaged spring facility, state television said.

The United Nations has said the spring was damaged because “infrastructure was deliberately targeted”, without saying who was responsible, leaving 4 million people in Damascus without safe drinking water supplies.

The U.N. warned the shortages could lead to waterborne disease outbreaks, and a spokesman has said sabotaging civilian water supplies constituted a war crime.

Rebels and activists have said government bombardment damaged the spring. The government said insurgent groups polluted the spring with diesel, forcing the state to cut supplies.

Clashes and air strikes in Wadi Barada have threatened a shaky nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey nearly two weeks ago to pave the way for peace talks.

The governor of the Damascus countryside province said in comments published on state news agency SANA on Wednesday, that a preliminary agreement had been reached with local fighters in parts of Wadi Barada to hand over their weapons to the government. Fighters not originally from the valley will be evacuated out of the area.

The Syrian army will then enter the areas to remove explosives and technicians will repair damage to the spring, governor Alaa Ibrahim said.

“In the coming hours it will become clear if it is possible to implement the agreement,” SANA quoted Ibrahim as saying.

Rebels in the area could not be reached immediately, but local activists denied that any agreement had been reached.

Through a series of local deals, sieges and army offensives, the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, has been steadily suppressing armed opposition around its heavily-fortified capital.

The Syrian army and allied fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah launched an offensive in late December to capture Wadi Barada, overlooked by pro-government military positions.

The government says it wants to enter the valley to secure the capital’s water supply. Rebel groups and local activists say pro-government forces are using the water issue to make political and military gains.

Rebels in Wadi Barada have allowed government engineers to maintain and operate the valley’s pumping station, the capital’s main water source, since they took control of the area in 2012.

Fighters have, however, cut water supplies several times in the past to put pressure on the army not to overrun the area.

The United Nations estimates 45,000 people live in the Wadi Barada area, and thinks at least 7,000 people have been displaced form the area in recent fighting.

Reporting by Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Dominic Evans