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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Syrian rebels reach deal with Russia for weapons handover

The agreement for rebels to attend the talks led to an easing of airstrikes

Jordanian residents of Jabir village watch aid deliveries to Syrians fleeing government offensive in the south as smoke from unknown fire rises, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. AP 
Jordanian residents of Jabir village watch aid deliveries to Syrians fleeing government offensive in the south as smoke from unknown fire rises, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. AP 

Syrian rebels reached a deal with Russian officers on a phased handover of their weapons and the deployment of Russian military police near the Jordanian border, a rebel spokesman said on Friday afternoon.

Late on Friday, the Syrian government recaptured the prized Nassib border crossing with Jordan, Syrian state media reported.

Ibrahim Jabawi said the agreement reached during ongoing talks in a town in southern Syria also includes a cessation of hostilities by both sides.

Rebel sources said Syrian civilians who fled a government offensive in south-western Syria will be able to return to their homes with Russian guarantees of protection as part of the deal. Rebels who are not willing to accept Damascus rule will be allowed to leave for northern Syria.

Ahead of the talks, armoured vehicles and a tank with a Russian flag were seen heading towards the Nasib Border Crossing between Jordan and Syria, several witnesses near the crossing said.

They said they spotted a convoy on a military road heading towards the crossing in rebel hands which the Syrian army has been advancing towards since Thursday.

In neighbouring Quneitra province, a pro-Damascus commander said an Israeli air strike hit a Syrian village on the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli military said it had struck a Syrian army post.

The commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the strike on a hill in Khan Arnabeh village in Quneitra province did not cause casualties.

The Israeli military said it had hit struck a Syrian army location that shelled a buffer zone on the Golan frontier during fighting with rebels.

Several thousand displaced civilians are congregating near the frontier area with Jordan seeking shelter from heavy Russian aerial bombardment of their towns and villages in Deraa province.

Government forces in south Syria have advanced along the Jordanian border, seizing a string of villages.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK based monitoring group, said government forces had reached the Jordanian frontier in Deraa province on Thursday for the first time since 2015, part of a major offensive to recover the entire south-west from rebels.

The offensive has swept into swathes of rebel-held territory in Deraa province, helped by heavy Russian air strikes.

The UN refugee agency has urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians fleeing their homes. It says the fighting has uprooted more than 320,000 people, with 60,000 gathered at the Jordan border crossing and thousands more at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan heights.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says it is the largest displacement since the start of the seven-year war.

The Observatory said an armed group that had controlled some border villages had handed over control to the advancing government forces without putting up resistance.

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Rebels in the battered south met with Russian negotiators on Friday after a ferocious 24-hour bombing blitz pushed them to agree to resume talks.

Moscow, a key ally of the Damascus regime, has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of rebels in areas of southern Syria.

The negotiations collapsed on Wednesday, with rebels blaming Russia, ushering in a day-long volley of air strikes, barrel bombs, and missiles that ultimately pressured rebels to return to the table.

TOPSHOT - This picture shows an explosion in rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 5, 2018. Waves of air strikes pounded rebel-held areas of southern Syria after the failure a day earlier of Russian-brokered talks to end the offensive in Daraa province, which has killed dozens and forced tens of thousands from their homes. / AFP / MOHAMAD ABAZEED
An explosion in rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 5, 2018. AFP

"The rebel delegation is on its way to the meeting," Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for the south's joint rebel command, told AFP mid-morning Friday.

He accused Russia of pursuing a "scorched earth policy" to force rebels back into negotiations.

The joint command said on Thursday it would be willing to hold "a new round of negotiations" if a halt to hostilities was immediately put into place.

As rebels made their announcement, bombardment died down across swathes of the south, according to an AFP correspondent on the outskirts of Deraa city and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

By Friday morning, intermittent strikes and barrel bombs were hitting Deraa province's eastern countryside but overall the raids were less intense than the previous day.

After securing areas around the capital this year, President Bashar Al Assad last month turned to the south, launching a bombing campaign on rebel areas on June 19.

Moscow, which intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, simultaneously began brokering talks, employing a carrot-and-stick strategy that has allowed the regime to recapture significant territory.

Under such deals, rebels hand over heavy weapons, local police take control of the area and government institutions resume working there.

More than 30 rebel towns have agreed to fall back under regime control through these agreements, doubling the government's hold on Deraa province to around two-thirds.

On Thursday, regime forces made sweeping advances on the border with Jordan, seizing their first security post there in more than three years, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Rebels then handed over some 275 square kilometres of border territory without a fight, said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

But rebels still hold Deraa's western countryside and the southern half of the divided provincial capital.

The Observatory said regime forces had moved closer to the Nassib on Friday afternoon, before it's recapture was reported by Syrian State media late on Friday evening.

"After the town of Al-Mutaaiyah agreed to the regime taking over, government forces are now four kilometres east of the crossing," Abdel Rahman said.

Syria's cash-strapped government hopes to recapture Nassib so that it can reopen trade with Jordan to the south.

Daraa is considered the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Assad that triggered Syria's war.

Rebel territory in the south was included in a ceasefire brokered last year by Russia, the United States, and Jordan, but that has done little to stem the violence.

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council convened in an urgent closed-door meeting to discuss the south, but Russia blocked the council from adopting a statement.

More than 150 civilians have been killed since the start of the offensive, according to the Observatory.