Syrian rebel fighters pull out of their last besieged area

A woman gestures as she stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The remaining fighters started to withdraw from the last rebel-held enclave in central Syria on Wednesday, state television reported, sealing the government’s control over the area and opening a major stretch of the country’s most important highway.

It further cements President Bashar al-Assad’s dominant position over the most populated parts of Syria after years of fighting, but means any new military campaign might risk direct conflict with foreign powers.

The withdrawal may also be the last in a series of agreed evacuations used by the government to defeat besieged insurgents by forcing them to surrender territory in return for safe passage to opposition areas in the north.

Often brokered by Assad’s Russian allies, such agreements have in recent years become a defining characteristic of Syria’s seven-year war.

In the last two months alone, the United Nations says 110,000 people have been evacuated to northwestern Syria and rebel-held areas north of Aleppo.

The opposition has called it a policy of forced displacement amounting to demographic change to force out Assad’s opponents. The Syrian government has said nobody is forced to leave and those who stay must accept state rule.

The last besieged rebel area, being fully evacuated on Wednesday, is the large enclave located between the cities of Hama and Homs around the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla.

Rebels still hold large swathes of northwest and southwest Syria that are not besieged because they border Turkey and Jordan, which have at times backed the insurgents and are guarantors of limited truces in those areas.

The only other area still surrounded by the Syrian army, in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, is held by Islamic State fighters who look unlikely to agree to withdraw to the patch of desert they still hold in east Syria.

More than a quarter of Syria is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that the United States helped in the fight against Islamic State.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull American troops from Syria, but the Pentagon has said they are staying for now.

SIEGE

Assad focused on the remaining besieged rebel pockets last month after taking back Eastern Ghouta, the biggest insurgent enclave near Damascus, in a ferocious, weeks-long offensive.

Having held the area being evacuated on Wednesday for years, rebels agreed earlier this month to withdraw along with their families and other civilians who did not want to come back under Assad’s rule.

Since the enclave straddled Syria’s main north-south highway in the stretch between Hama and Homs, recapturing it will significantly ease communication lines in government areas.

Some 27,000 people have left the enclave already since the evacuations began earlier this month, a local government official said. The last convoy of buses began to leave on Wednesday, according to state media.

Last month, 66,000 people left Eastern Ghouta under similar agreements, the U.N. has said. Other major evacuations have included from east Aleppo in late 2016, when more than 30,000 people left.

Tens of thousands of other people have left smaller pockets in recent years. It has added to a humanitarian crisis in northwestern Idlib province, where the pre-war population of about 1 million people has been doubled by those fleeing other parts of the country.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Iran says Syria has every right to defend itself against Israel: TV

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran on Friday supported Syria’s right to defend itself against aggression from Israel, state TV reported, accusing others of remaining silent over the attacks on Tehran’s key regional ally.

“Iran strongly condemns …(Israel’s) attacks on Syria. The international community’s silence encourages Israel’s aggression. Syria has every right to defend itself,” the broadcaster quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying.

Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time, in the most extensive military exchange ever between the two adversaries.

The confrontation came two days after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 multinational agreement aimed it curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Tehran and its allied Shi’ite Muslim militias back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has refused to recognize Israel.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by John Stonestreet)

Russia, after Netanyahu visit, backs off Syria S-300 missile supplies

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is not in talks with the Syrian government about supplying advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles and does not think they are needed, the Izvestia daily cited a top Kremlin aide as saying on Friday, in an apparent U-turn by Moscow.

The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia last month hinted it would supply the weapons to President Bashar al-Assad, over Israeli objections, after Western military strikes on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes had removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold the missiles and Russia’s Kommersant daily cited unnamed military sources as saying deliveries might begin imminently.

But Kozhin’s comments, released so soon after Netanyahu’s Moscow talks with Putin, suggest the Israeli leader’s lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off.

“For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.

The Syrian military already had “everything it needed,” Kozhin added.

The Kremlin played down the idea that it had performed a U-turn on the missile question or that any decision was linked to Netanyahu’s visit.

“Deliveries (of the S-300s) were never announced as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the matter.

“But we did say after the (Western) strikes (on Syria) that of course Russia reserved the right to do anything it considered necessary.”

The possibility of missile supplies to Assad along with its military foray into Syria itself has helped Moscow boost its Middle East clout. with Putin hosting everyone from Netanyahu to the presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Saudi king.

ISRAELI LOBBYING

Israel has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell the S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capabilities against arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected shipments.

On Thursday, Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory. S-300s could have significantly complicated the Israeli strikes.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with significantly different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Though since been superseded by the more modern S-400 system, the S-300s are still regarded as highly potent and outstrip anything that the Syrian government currently has.

Syria currently relies on a mixture of less advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to defend its air space.

Russian media on Friday were actively circulating a video released by the Israeli military which showed an Israeli missile destroying one such system — a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense battery — on Thursday in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Israel says it attacked targets in Syria after Iranian rocket fire

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Dan Williams and Angus McDowall

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel said it attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time.

It was the heaviest Israeli barrage in Syria since the start in 2011 of its war, in which Iranians, allied Shi’ite Muslim militias and Russian troops have deployed in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian Army Command said Israel’s attack killed three people and injured two others. A Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes killed at least 23 military personnel, including Syrians and non-Syrians.

The White House, in a statement, condemned Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks” from Syria and said it supported Israel’s right to defend itself.

Expectations of a regional flare-up, amid warnings from Israel that it was determined to prevent any Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, were stoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

The Trump administration portrayed its rejection of that agreement as a response, in part, to Iran’s military interventions in the Middle East, underpinning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough line towards Tehran.

Israel said 20 Iranian Grad and Fajr rockets were shot down by its Iron Dome air defense system or did not reach targets in the occupied Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

The Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, carried out the rocket salvo, Israel said.

There was no immediate comment from Iran.

Iran and Israel were already drawing deeper into confrontation before Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, but his move has shaken up the region. Within Iran, it could empower hardliners while weakening the moderate camp that has sought better relations with the West.

Syrian state media said Israel launched dozens of missiles and hit a radar station, Syrian air defense positions and an ammunition dump, underscoring the risks of a wider escalation involving Iran and its regional allies.

“We hit … almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at the annual Herzliya security conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message.”

Lieberman said the Iranian rockets either fell short of their targets – military bases in the Golan – or were intercepted.

The White House said: “The Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East.”

The Syrian foreign ministry said the Israeli attack indicated “the start of a new phase of aggression” against Damascus.

Israeli soldiers are seen in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli soldiers are seen in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Thursday’s exchange followed a suspected Israeli rocket strike in Syria on Tuesday on a military base in Kisweh, hours after Trump’s announcement on the nuclear deal.

The Syrian Observatory for Human rights said 15 people, including eight Iranians, were killed in that attack. A commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance said there were no casualties. Israel, as it has typically done in similar incidents, neither confirmed nor denied a role.

France urged Iran on Thursday to refrain from all “military provocation” and cautioned it against “all temptations for regional hegemony”.

Russia, which is generally friendly to Israel but fights in Syria’s civil war on the same side as Iran, called on both to show restraint and resolve differences through diplomatic means.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israel destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli planes.

He said the military focused on inflicting “long-term damage on the Iranian military establishment in Syria” and assessed “it will take a substantial time to replenish”.

Russia’s defense ministry said Syria had shot down more than half of the missiles fired by Israel, RIA news agency reported.

In the Golan, Israeli schools opened as usual on Thursday morning after sirens sent residents to shelters overnight.

The Israelis fear that Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are turning Syria into a new front against them. Israel says its occasional strikes in Syria aim to prevent such an outcome.

Iran vowed retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike last month killed seven of its military personnel at a Syrian air base. Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and allied militia in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Dahlia Nehme and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Syrian Observatory: Israeli raid in Syria killed Iranians

An Israeli tank can be seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Angus McDowall and Jeffrey Heller

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday an Israeli attack on Iranian military facilities south of Damascus had killed at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.

The reports of an Israeli attack in Kisweh late on Tuesday emerged after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

The UK-based Observatory said the missile strikes hit depots and rocket launchers, killing 15 individuals including eight Iranians. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

A commander in the regional alliance fighting alongside Damascus said that Israel had hit a Syrian army base without causing casualties.

Trump’s hard tack against the nuclear deal, while welcomed by Israel, has stirred fears of a possible regional flare-up.

Within hours of the White House announcement on Tuesday night, Syrian state media said that its air defenses had brought down two Israeli missiles.

Israel’s military declined to comment on the reports, shortly after it said it had identified “irregular activity” by Iranian forces in Syria and went onto high alert. The military had instructed authorities in the Golan Heights bordering Syria to ready bomb shelters and mobilized some reservist forces.

Iran and its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military with critical support in the seven-year-old war, beating back rebels and Islamic State.

Tehran’s growing clout in Syria alarms arch foe Israel, which has struck what it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Hezbollah scores of times during the conflict.

Last month, an air strike on the T-4 air base near Syria’s Homs city killed seven Iranians. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate.

Israeli-Iranian confrontation would likely remain limited after Washington abandoned the nuclear deal, but conflict between the two regional powers will flare on in Syria, experts said on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to press its leader, Vladimir Putin, to rein in the Iranians along the Syrian front.

FLARE UPS

Ghaleb Kandil, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah and Damascus, said he expected the two enemies to exchange “limited, calculated attacks” in Syria’s war as deterrents.

“It’s clear that everyone realizes the risks of a big confrontation … Iran does not want (this) confrontation, and Israel knows its consequences,” he said.

The occupied Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was quiet on Wednesday.

“The children are in kindergartens and the crop pickers are out in the fields, all agricultural work is continuing as normal and tourists are arriving. There have been very few tour group cancellations,” said Diti Goldstein, a local tourism official.

Still, experts said they expected flare ups to persist.

“Israel has military dominance and free hand to carry out those kinds of attacks” on targets inside Syria, said Gary Samore, who served as a deputy national security adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sooner or later, Shi’ite militias which Tehran has deployed in Syria will also likely attack Israeli military sites near the border, he said at an annual security conference near Tel Aviv.

But Samore added that Russia, a leading powerbroker in Syria and key Assad ally, wants to keep things “under control” and avoid “a big war between Israel and Iran” on Syrian territory.

In 2015, Russia and Israel set up a hotline to prevent accidental clashes between their forces in Syria.

In an interview with Israeli news site YNet, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said the government’s strategy was “to get Iran out of Syria without starting a war”.

“We want the Iranians to be forced into making the decision to strategically retreat from Syria,” Katz said.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut; Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in BeirutWriting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Assad renews offensive as missile bombardment raise escalation risk

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus,Syria April 29,2018.REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army unleashed a massive bombardment against one rebel enclave on Monday and prepared for the withdrawal of insurgents from another as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to crush the rebels’ last besieged strongholds.

However, missile strikes against several government military bases on Sunday – not claimed by any party despite speculation in Israel that its military was responsible – underscored the risks of a wider escalation in the seven-year conflict.

More than 140 Syrian army air strikes hit the town of Rastan and surrounding villages in the rebel enclave between the cities of Hama and Homs early on Monday alongside sustained shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Last week a Syrian government minister said the enclave would be the army’s next target after retaking all rebel areas around the capital, a goal it looks closer to achieving with Monday’s expected insurgent withdrawal from south Damascus.

Despite Assad’s ever-stronger position against rebels since Russia’s entry into the war in 2015 brought a string of battlefield victories, the involvement of numerous regional and global powers threatens to inflame the war further.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the missile attacks that struck several bases near Hama and Aleppo overnight, causing large explosions, and the Syrian army has blamed only “aggression” by its enemies.

However, Israel has previously carried out strikes in Syria to stop Assad’s ally Iran getting stronger there or transferring weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, and there is widespread speculation in Israel that it was behind the attack.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israel Katz would not comment on the strikes, but added that Israel “has made it unequivocally clear at all levels that it will not allow an Iranian front in Syria to be established”.

A spokesman for Israel’s military said it would not comment on foreign reports. But Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel was likely behind the strikes.

“Israel has to decide: ‘are we confronting Iran in Syria before they have the full advanced weapons capabilities’ … or do we wait … let them build a huge military capability in Syria and meet them in a future war and pay a very high price?”

Diplomats have warned of a possible major escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria as Assad and his allies take more territory from rebels.

The United States, Jordan and Assad’s main ally Russia have declared a ceasefire zone in southwest Syria, near the border with Israel, and on Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington’s strategy there “remains unchanged”.

The Observatory said at least 26 people – mostly Iranians and members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia – were killed in Sunday’s strikes, and that dozens more people were missing.

Speaking in Israel on Sunday, Pompeo said the United States was “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region” and said it was critical for the two allies to work together to stop it.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said no Iranian base had been hit or Iranians killed. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior Iranian member of parliament met Assad on Monday and said Iran would keep its military advisers in Syria until the war ended.

Tehran and its allies blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike on the Tiyas air base in Syria, in which several Iranian military personnel were killed, and Iran has warned it would not go “without response”.

ASSAULT

The Syrian army’s assault on the pocket between Homs and Hama – the most populous remaining besieged area in Syria – included air strikes and artillery, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Reinforcements arrived in government-held areas before the bombardment, which targeted Rastan, the biggest town in the pocket, and several nearby villages, the Observatory said.

Syrian rebels hold large swathes of both northwest and southwest Syria. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States holds large parts of northern and eastern Syria after an offensive against Islamic State last year.

The pocket in southern Damascus is split between areas held by Islamic State and rebel groups. It has been the focus of a massive bombardment and intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta earlier this month.

Late on Sunday, state media reported that one of the rebel groups there, the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which includes Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, had agreed to withdraw to opposition-held Idlib province in northern Syria.

Footage on state television on Monday showed what it said was preparations for that withdrawal, along with the departure of buses in northern Syria to evacuate civilians from two government-held villages besieged by insurgents.

The surrender deal for Tahrir al-Sham in south Damascus was part of a deal to allow about 5,000 people to leave the two government-held Shi’ite villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, it said.

However, SANA state news agency reported continued intensive bombardment of al-Hajar al-Aswad, another area in the south Damascus pocket where Islamic State fighters are based.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Lesley Wroughton in Amman, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Exclusive: Russian civilians helping Assad use military base back home – witnesses

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors leaving an airport outside Rostov-on-Don, Russia. REUTERS/Stringe

By Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev

MOLKINO, Russia (Reuters) – The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with Russian civilians fighting in Syria but on three recent occasions groups of men flying in from Damascus headed straight to a defense ministry base in Molkino, Reuters reporters witnessed.

Molkino in southwestern Russia is where the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade is based, according to information on the Kremlin website.

The destination of the Russians arriving from Syria provides rare evidence of a covert Russian mission in Syria beyond the air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops acknowledged by Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 14 Russians may be in Syria but “they are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. He referred Reuters to the defense ministry when asked why civilians fighting in Syria return to a military base. The ministry did not immediately respond.

A duty officer at the 10th special forces brigade, asked why non-military people were entering the military base, said: “Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware … You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything … You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?”

More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.

The contractors are transferred by Syrian airline Cham Wings, the sources said.

Reuters reporters saw a Syrian Cham Wings charter flight from Damascus land at the civilian airport in Rostov-on-Don on April 17 and watched groups of men leave the terminal through an exit separate from the one used by ordinary passengers.

They boarded three buses, which took them to an area mainly used by airport staff. A luggage carrier brought numerous oversized bags and the men, dressed in civilian clothes, got off the buses, loaded the bags and got back on.

The three buses then left the airport in convoy and headed south; two made stops near cafes along the way and one on the roadside. All three reached the village of Molkino, 350 km (220 miles) south, shortly before midnight.

In the village, each bus paused for a minute or two at a checkpoint manned by at least two servicemen, before driving on. About 15-20 minutes later the buses drove back through the checkpoint empty. Publicly available satellite maps show the road leads to the military facility.

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

EXCURSION?

The buses took men along the same route from the airport to Molkino on Mar. 25 and Apr. 6, a Reuters reporter saw.

Several relatives, friends and recruiters of fighters told Reuters Russian private contractors have had a training camp in Molkino since the time they fought in eastern Ukraine alongside pro-Russian separatists.

The military facility is known for its recently renovated firing range, where the military trains for counter terrorist operations, tank battles and sniper shooting, the Russian defense ministry website says.

Reuters contacted the owners of some of the buses transporting the groups of men from the airport. They said they rent out their buses but declined to say who to: one said a trip to Molkino could have been an excursion.

One of the buses, a white 33-year-old Neoplan with a slogan of a tourist company on its boards, was imported into Russia in 2007 and initially registered in the town of Pechory. Dmitry Utkin, identified by three sources as leader of the contractors, previously commanded a special forces unit based in Pechory.

Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2K5I3MR

(Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Insurgents south of Syrian capital surrender, says state TV

Smoke rises from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Insurgents in the last area outside Syrian government control near Damascus agreed on Friday to withdraw, but the army’s bombardment continued pending a full surrender deal, state media and a war monitor reported.

The development heralds another advance for President Bashar al-Assad’s push to retake remaining enclaves and strengthen his position around the capital after retaking eastern Ghouta this month.

Large puffs of smoke could be seen on state television rising from a row of buildings as an artillery salvo struck home before one collapsed in a cloud of dust, accompanied by the rattle of automatic fire and the sound of distant blasts.

Assad is in his strongest position since early in the seven-year war despite U.S., British and French air strikes on April 14 – their first coordinated action in the war.

The attacks were to punish Assad for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured Douma – the rebels’ last redoubt in eastern Ghouta.

But the single volley of raids, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.

International inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.

However, a Reuters witness saw a vehicle with licence plates used by international organisations and escorted by Russian military police near the site in Douma on Friday, three days after U.N. security personnel doing reconnaissance for the OPCW inspectors was forced to turn back because of gunfire.

Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.

Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based rights group, voiced “grave concern” over reports that Douma hospital staff had faced “extreme intimidation” after the area came back under government control to stop them talking about the incident.

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

DISPLACEMENT

The surrender of the enclave in south Damascus, which includes the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Hajar al-Aswad district and neighbouring areas, will bring the entire area around the capital back under Assad’s control.

Under the deal, Islamic State fighters, who control part of the enclave, will leave for territory the group controls in eastern Syria, while other factions leave for opposition territory in the north, state media reported.

Sporadic shelling persisted, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said. State television said the military campaign was continuing because insurgents had not agreed to all details of the surrender. The Observatory said it was because some of the Islamic State fighters still rejected the deal.

Yarmouk was the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria before the war. Although most residents have fled, up to 12,000 remain there and in the neighbouring areas under jihadist or rebel control, said the U.N. agency that helps them.

“There are reports that large numbers of people have been displaced from Yarmouk Camp to the neighbouring area of Yalda. There are also reports of civilian casualties,” said Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian camps.

Jihadist shelling of an adjoining neighbourhood injured five people, Damascus police were cited as saying early on Friday by state television.

Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby – Eastern Qalamoun – said they had also agreed to withdraw.

Thousands of civilians, including the fighters’ families, are expected to leave with them for northern Syria before the areas come back under Assad’s rule under deals similar to others carried out across the country as government forces advance.

The United Nations has voiced concern that such “evacuations” involve the displacement of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced conscription. The government denies that.

“The U.N. expects further displacements in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations reportedly are happening,” the world body said in a humanitarian note.

Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria where the displaced will go are poor.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Douma, Editing by Peter Graff, Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Assad steps up efforts to crush last besieged enclaves

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al Assad is seen outside eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Angus McDowall and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian government stepped up its efforts on Thursday to retake the opposition’s last besieged enclaves, as rebels prepared to withdraw from one and a newspaper reported an ultimatum against another.

President Bashar al-Assad scored a major victory this month by retaking eastern Ghouta, the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus, putting his forces in by far their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old civil war.

The United States, Britain and France launched a volley of air strikes on Saturday against three Syrian targets in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons strike during the Ghouta assault.

But the limited Western intervention, far from any contested battlefront, has shown no sign of having any impact on the ground, where Assad’s forces have pressed on with his offensive.

The last rebels withdrew from eastern Ghouta hours after the Western bombing. Since then, the government has focused on regaining four less populous encircled enclaves.

Their capture would leave the opposition holding only its two main strongholds, located in the northwest and southwest along Syria’s international borders.

Diplomacy this week has focussed on the accusations of poison gas use in Douma, the last town to hold out against the government advance in eastern Ghouta.

Western countries say scores of people were gassed to death in the April 7 chemical attack. Syria and its ally Russia deny it. Now that the rebels have surrendered, the area is under government control, and a team of international inspectors has so far been unable to reach it.

The inspectors have delayed their visit to Douma after their security team were shot at during a reconnaissance trip on Tuesday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said.

The Western countries say Moscow and Damascus are preventing the inspectors from reaching the site and may be destroying evidence. Russia and Assad’s government deny this.

Meanwhile, the Western intervention has had no measurable impact on the wider war, with rebels continuing to surrender under deals that allow them to withdraw to the opposition pocket in the northwest in return for abandoning territory.

SURRENDER

State television showed live footage of buses entering the town of Dumayr, northeast of Damascus, to bring out fighters and their families, while soldiers stood by the roadside.

Twenty buses would be used to transfer about 5,000 people, including 1,500 rebels, to north Syria after they surrendered their heavy weapons, Syrian state TV said.

Dumayr has been covered by an informal ceasefire for years, but its recovery is important for the government because it makes it possible to guarantee the safety of vehicles travelling on the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

Said Saif, a senior official with one of the rebel groups in the area, said his group had no choice but to go along with a Russian-backed deal to leave the town, because there were no other outside forces that could guarantee their safety.

“We hope the Russians keep their promises, even though we have no trust in them,” he said.

In the nearby enclave of Eastern Qalamoun, which consists of several towns and an area of hills and has also been covered by an informal ceasefire, rebels said they were also negotiating a withdrawal deal with Russia.

The army has put military pressure on rebels in Eastern Qalamoun to start negotiations to withdraw, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group said.

A military news service run by the government’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah reported on Thursday that the army had moved into positions inside the enclave to entirely encircle one of its towns, al-Ruhayba.

The Observatory said there were also talks under way between Russia and rebels over the fate of an enclave in central Syria around the town of Rastan.

Separately, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported on Thursday that Islamic State militants had been given 48 hours to agree to withdraw from an enclave centred around the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugee south of Damascus.

“If they refuse, the army and supporting forces are ready to launch a military operation to end the presence of the organisation in the area,” al-Watan said.

Most residents have fled the camp, once Syria’s largest for Palestinian refugees, but thousands of civilians are still inside. Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which looks after Palestinian refugees said it was deeply concerned for their safety.

A commander in the regional military alliance that backs the Syrian government said the Syrian army had begun shelling the jihadist enclave on Tuesday in preparation for an assault.

Islamic State lost most of its territory last year, but it still holds small areas of desert in eastern Syria on either side of the Euphrates river. On Thursday neighbouring Iraq carried out air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria in coordination with Damascus, the Iraqi military said.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Raya Jalabi in Baghdad; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)