Daraa: Rebels in Syria’s battered south said Thursday they are returning to talks with government ally Russia after the most intensive bombing campaign yet in the regime’s two-week offensive.
Moscow has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of beleaguered rebels in southern Syria, a highly strategic zone bordering both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
More than 30 towns have already agreed to return to regime control, and negotiations this week focused on remaining rebel territory in Daraa’s western countryside and the southern half of the provincial capital.
But those talks collapsed on Wednesday because of Russia’s tough demands, rebels said, ushering in a blitz of air strikes, barrel bombs and missiles.
An AFP correspondent on the edge of rebel-held parts of Daraa city, the divided provincial capital, said the bombing was the heaviest since the launch of the Russian-backed offensive on June 19.
Twenty-four hours into the onslaught, rebels said they were willing to return to negotiations.
Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for the south’s joint rebel command, accused Russia of pursuing a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels back to the table.
The joint command said 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, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported a halt to both Russian and Syrian government air strikes over the south.
Later, Abazeed told AFP talks would resume. He gave no specific time, but said the meeting would likely take place Friday.
– ‘No safe place’ –
The day-long volley began on Wednesday evening after rebels announced the failure of talks with Russian negotiators over the south’s fate.
They said Russia had insisted opposition factions hand over their heavy weapons in one go, while rebels wanted to do so in several phases.
Moscow also reportedly refused rebel requests for safe passage to opposition-held territory in other parts of Syria, as was granted in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo.
The renewed strikes hit areas near the border with Jordan and further west, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
Six civilians, including a woman and four children, were killed in strikes on the town of Saida.
Hours later, regime forces fully retook the town, also taking a security checkpoint on the Jordanian border for the first time in more than three years, the monitoring group said.
Rebels then handed some 275 square kilometres (105 square miles) of territory near the border to regime forces without a fight, said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
But the key Nasib border crossing remains in opposition hands.
Syrian state media reported one person killed in opposition fire on government-held districts of Daraa city.
The bombing on rebel areas throughout Thursday sent people fleeing into olive groves and arid fields in search of safety.
Bahaa Mahameed, a doctor working in Daraa’s western countryside, said wounded civilians were thronging his clinic after several days of calm.
“The warplanes are bombing like crazy. We can’t even find a safe place to put the wounded,” Mahameed told AFP.
– UN stalemate –
Rebel territory in southern Syria was already included in a ceasefire agreed last year between Washington, Amman, and Moscow, but that did little to halt the regime’s attack.
The onslaught sparked calls for restraint. Sweden and Kuwait on Thursday requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
But Russia blocked the council from adopting a statement on the issue. A diplomat said on condition of anonymity there had been a fruitless push to persuade Moscow to accept a declaration based on humanitarian aid.
Daraa is considered the cradle of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that triggered Syria’s devastating civil war.
Nearly 150 civilians have died since the assault in the south began, according to the Observatory.
The offensive has also displaced 320,000 people, according to the UN, many south to the border with Jordan or west to near the Golan.
Both countries have kept their borders closed, despite mounting calls to let Syrians escape to safety.
The International Rescue Committee said displaced families were struggling to cope with 45-degree heat, dry desert winds and scorpions and snakes.
Children were reportedly suffering diarrhoea and lice after spending more than a week on the border.
The Norwegian Refugee Council on Thursday urged Jordan to open its frontier, saying the fighting had created the largest displacement since the start of Syria’s war and placed “the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians at immediate risk”.
“A ceasefire is urgently needed,” NRC head Jan Egeland said. “We call on all the governments with influence to exercise all their power to stop this bloodshed.”