Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad widened their offensive in the country’s southwest to an adjacent province, days after reaching an evacuation agreement with rebels in southern Deraa province.
Pro-government troops, backed by Russian air support, bombed a rebel-held village in Quneitra – an area adjoining the occupied Golan Heights – as they look to recapture a strip of land straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces still in rebel hands.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets it believes belong to the Russian airforce overflew the village of Mashara, located 11km away from the Golan frontier.
Hezbollah-linked al-Mayadeen TV said pro-government troops were advancing on the elevated Tel Mashara area.
Earlier in the day, rebel fighters and family members began evacuating southern Deraa city on buses that will take them to opposition-held areas in northern Syria.
Syria’s Deraa: Regime raises flag in cradle of protest movement
A rebel official, Abu Shaima, told Reuters news agency at least 500 fighters boarded 15 buses and he was one of those leaving.
The rebels left the Deraa al-Balad neighbourhood of Deraa city that had been under their control for years until a surrender deal last week. Under the agreement, fighters handed over weapons and those who didn’t wish to live under state rule were transferred out.
One rebel fighter, Abdullah Masalmah, also told Reuters he does not “trust the Russians or the regime”.
“I cannot forget the thousands of those who were killed by the regime let alone the orphans, wounded, and the detainees,” he said.
The buses – parked on a main thoroughfare connecting the city’s government-held north with its rebel-held south – were searched by Russian forces before setting off just after midday for Idlib province.
Syrian state television broadcast images of white buses it said were carrying the fighters, their blue curtains drawn, surrounded by military forces.
The Syrian government, backed by the Russian military, captured most of Deraa province in an offensive that began in June.
Deraa city was the scene of the first major peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule in March 2011.
A group of teenage boys scrawled anti-government slogans on the walls of a school, kickstarting popular unarmed protests across the country. However, Assad’s brutal response resulted in a full fledged war with world powers supporting numerous armed groups.
An estimated half a million people have been killed with 11 million more displaced in more than seven years of conflict.
The Stream – Syria: How do everyday people survive in a war zone?
Syrian state news agency SANA said on Sunday rebels handed over heavy weapons to the Syrian army, showing images of armoured vehicles and artillery it said had been collected.
It marks another milestone in Assad’s efforts to recover control of Syria, months after the Damascus rural area of Ghouta was recaptured in a bloody air-and-ground offensive in which more than 1,400 people were killed.
He now holds 80 percent of Deraa province, but parts of its western countryside and most of the adjacent province of Quneitra still escape his control.
Some 160,000 people displaced by the government’s offensive on Deraa are still trapped in Quneitra.
On Sunday, government forces fired hundreds of missiles in the first such attack on the province in more than year when Russia, the United States, and Jordan agreed to a ceasefire for parts of the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reported a humanitarian aid convoy reached government-held parts of southwest Syria on Sunday.
Nine trucks carrying 3,000 food parcels reached the towns of Nassib and Um al-Mayathen in Deraa province near a border crossing with Jordan.
The convoy was accompanied by a delegation that included the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali al-Zaatari, and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.