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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Regime forces seize last ISIS pocket in southern Syria 

Regime forces have been fighting the militants in the area since July

 Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike through rubble in Al Hajar Al Aswad district. Reuters
 Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike through rubble in Al Hajar Al Aswad district. Reuters

Syrian regime forces on Saturday took back control of the last ISIS holdout in southern Syria after months of fighting, a war monitor said.

Regime forces retook Tulul Al Safa, between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida, "after ISIS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert", the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Regime forces have been fighting the militants in the area since a deadly July attack on the Druze minority in Sweida province.

In recent weeks, air strikes on the Tulul Al Safa pocket had increased and hundreds of regime fighters were sent as reinforcements, the Observatory said.

The militants' withdrawal was likely "under a deal with the regime forces" after weeks of encirclement and air raids, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

State news agency SANA reported regime forces had made "a great advance in Tulul Al Safa" and said they were combing the area for any remaining militants.

In the July 25 attack, ISIS killed more than 250 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings across Sweida province.

The militants also kidnapped around 30 people -- mostly women and children -- during the deadliest assault on Syria's Druze community in the seven-year civil war.

Twenty-three of the hostages have since returned home, while the remainder appear to have died or been executed by the militants.

The province is the heartland of the country's Druze minority, which made up roughly three percent of Syria's pre-war population -- or about 700,000 people.

Followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze are considered heretics by the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

ISIS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a "caliphate" in land it controlled.

But the militant group has since lost most of it to various offensives in both countries.