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ANKARA/ASTANA (Reuters) - Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed to post observers on the edge of a de-escalation zone in northern Syria's Idlib region, which is largely controlled by Islamist militants, Turkey's foreign ministry said on Friday.
The move is part of a broader plan under which Moscow, Tehran and Ankara will set up four such zones in different parts of Syria, an idea described by critics as de facto partitioning of the war-torn nation.
"Observers from these three countries will be deployed at check and observation points in safe zones that form the borders of the de-escalation zone," the ministry said in a statement after talks in Kazakhstan.
It said the observers' mission would be to prevent clashes between "the (Syrian) regime and the opposition forces, and any violations of the truce".
Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said Russia, Iran and Turkey will each send about 500 observers to Idlib, and the Russians will be military policemen.
Idlib province, in northwest Syria on the border with Turkey, is largely under the control of a rebel alliance spearheaded by the former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front.
Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, speaking in Astana to al Manar TV station, also said the "joint presence" in Idlib referred to a "secure cordon" with checkpoints.
Ildib was one of four regions across Syria, mainly controlled by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, which Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed in May to designate as de-escalation zones in support of a ceasefire agreement.
PARTITION AND RECONCILIATION
Russia and Iran have been strong supporters of Assad during the six-year-old conflict, while Turkey has backed some of the rebel factions who fought to overthrow him.
"This announcement of a de-escalation zone in Idlib constitutes the final stage of the realisation of the memorandum signed in May," the Turkish foreign ministry said, adding that the May accord had brought a significant decline in violence.
"With this latest development, the memorandum is making a significant contribution to providing necessary conditions to further the political solution process going on in Geneva under UN monitoring."
Critics have described the plan as de facto partitioning of Syria, but the three nations said on Friday the zones were temporary, although their existence could be extended beyond the initial six-month term.
In a joint statement made in Astana, the three nations said that "under no circumstances the creation of the above-mentioned de-escalation areas undermine the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic".
Russian negotiator Lavrentyev told reporters that the exact deployment locations of de-escalation control forces had yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, the Astana trio have already started discussing setting up national reconciliation committees in Syria and will continue those discussions at the next meeting in late October, he said.
The United Nations, which hosts separate Syria peace talks in Geneva, has previously urged Astana to focus on consolidating the ceasefire and avoid political matters.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Writing by Dominic Evans and Olzhas Auyezov)