New evacuations in southwest Syria as offensive continues
BEIRUT (AP) — A new group of rebels and their families began evacuating Saturday from the country’s southwest, activists and Syrian media said, where the government has gained new ground in its ongoing offensive.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 buses arrived at a crossing point to evacuate rebels who refused to accept the government’s return to areas they had controlled for years. The government-affiliated Central Military Media also reported on the evacuation, a day after the first group left to the northern province of Idlib, where the opposition still holds sway.
Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, said around 4,000 people are expected to be evacuated in total, in accordance with the deal reached that saw rebels surrender villages and towns in the southwestern region amid a military offensive.
The U.N. and human rights organizations have condemned the evacuations as forced displacement. More than half of Idlib’s population of two million is of displaced Syrians from other parts of the country, following similar military offensives and evacuations.
Over the last month, government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the civil war began in 2011, restoring their positions along the disengagement line on the frontier with Israel, part of a cease-fire agreement reached in 1974 between the two countries formally still at war.
Also Saturday, the government continued targeting the Yarmouk Basin, the lower tip of the southwestern region where an Islamic State-affiliated group still holds territory. The group is not party to the agreement between the government and rebels.
The Observatory said government forces pounded the Yarmouk Basin with over 120 airstrikes and other missiles, amid clashes. The IS-affiliated group has taken advantage of the rebels’ defeats, gaining new territory in Daraa province.