Israel says it killed seven insurgents on Syria frontier, talks up Assad

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits Gaza's Kerem Shalom crossing, the strip's main commercial border terminal, July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it saw potentially stabilizing benefits to President Bashar al-Assad winning the Syrian civil war after the Israeli military said it killed seven Islamist insurgents in a rare airstrike across the countries’ frontier.

The remarks by Israel’s defense minister signal an emerging Israeli accommodation with Assad, an old enemy who has not sought direct confrontation with Israel, as he regains control of Syria from rebels – including some Islamist groups.

As recently as last week, Israel sounded alarms over Assad’s advances against southwestern rebels: It shot down a Syrian warplane that it said had strayed into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and warned Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcement against trying to deploy on the Syrian-held side.

But Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman struck a cautiously upbeat note on Thursday as he described an Assad win as a given.

“From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” Lieberman told reporters during a tour of air defense units in northern Israel.

Asked whether Israel should be less wary of possible flare-ups on the Golan – much of which it seized from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized abroad – Lieberman said: “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”

Shortly after the remarks, Israel’s military said it had carried out an air strike on the Golan on Wednesday night, killing seven insurgents that it believed were from a Syrian wing of Islamic State and en route to attack an Israeli target.

With Assad’s troops closing in, “we see how the ISIS-affiliated terrorists are scattered and are losing terrain,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

He said the men hit had assault rifles and bomb belts and moved in a battle formation: “We assume they were on a terrorist mission and that they were trying to infiltrate into Israel. It did not seem as if they were fleeing, seeking refuge.”

An earlier Israeli military statement said the airstrike took place on the Syrian-held Golan. But Conricus amended that, saying that the location was within Israeli lines.

There was no immediate Syrian government response.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, on Thursday, reported clashes going on between Assad’s forces and Islamic State militants on the Syrian Golan.

The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011 and Russian intervention in 2015 helped to turn the tide in Assad’s favor.

Russian military police began deploying on the Syrian-held Golan and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said, describing the move as aimed at supporting a decades-old U.N. peacekeeper presence.

The new Russian posts would be handed over to the Syrian government once the situation stabilized, the ministry said.

Conricus confirmed the Russian deployment but declined to comment further.

Lieberman said that, for there to be long-term quiet between Israel and Syria, Assad must abide by a 1974 U.N.-monitored armistice that set up demilitarized zones on the Golan.

Lieberman reiterated Israel’s demand that Iran not set up military bases against it in Syria, nor that Syria be used to smuggle arms to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

“We are not looking for friction, but we will know how to respond to any provocation and any challenge,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Stamp)

Assad, aided by Russia, poised to snuff out ‘cradle’ of revolt

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a Syrian flag in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the place it first began more than seven years ago, as rebels enter talks with his Russian allies on withdrawing from Deraa city or accepting a return of state authority.

Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got underway last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier that was once in opposition hands.

Assad, whose control was once reduced to a fraction of Syria, now holds the largest chunk of the country with crucial help from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Deraa was the scene of the first anti-Assad protests that spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people. The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states alone and many more in Europe.

Rebels in Deraa are due to hold talks with Russian officers on Tuesday, a spokesman for the rebels, Abu Shaimaa, said. The talks were due to take place in the town of Busra al-Sham.

Some are seeking evacuation to opposition-held areas of the north while others are negotiating to remain as a local security force, he said.

“Today there is a session with the Russians over the forced displacement,” he said in a text message, referring to the expected evacuation of a yet-to-determined number of rebels to opposition areas of the northwest at the border with Turkey.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.

As Assad pushes for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.

The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

Government forces began thrusting into Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned rebels surrendered quickly in some places as the United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.

Deraa rebels agreed to a wider ceasefire deal brokered by Russia last Friday and to surrender the province in phases. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan, which has been in rebel hands since 2015.

On Monday, government forces extended their control all the way along Deraa province’s border with Jordan up to a pocket of territory held by Islamic State-affiliated militants, severing a once vital opposition lifeline to Jordan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.

The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.

Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.

“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(The story corrects to show talks over fate of rebels in Deraa city are being held in Busra al-Sham, not Deraa city itself.)

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Several hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon return to Syria

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Tom Perry

ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) – Nearly 400 refugees began leaving the Lebanese border town of Arsal to cross into Syria on Thursday, a rare case of returns which Lebanon’s government wants to encourage.

The convoy made up a very small fraction of the one million registered Syrian war refugees across Lebanon – about a quarter of its population – and of the 50,000 which local officials estimate live in Arsal.

People gathered in minivans and tractors in the morning, loading them with mattresses, water tanks and furniture. Lebanese security personnel recorded the names of Syrians as they passed through a checkpoint on the way out of Arsal.

The refugees were headed for Qalamoun across the border, a region cleared of insurgents by Syrian army offensives in which Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement played a leading role.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Those leaving said they had submitted their names to Lebanese authorities, who in turn sent the names to Syria for approval from the state.

Syrian state TV said hundreds of people arrived past a border crossing in the Damascus countryside.

Many said they were happy to be returning to Syria, and while some said their houses were fit to live in, others had heard their homes were destroyed.

“We have been planning to go back for a long time; we are glad things have calmed down,” said Ali Abdullah, 34, leaving with his wife and two young sons. One of the boys was born in Lebanon and had never been to Syria.

“I want to take him back because that is your country, your (home is) not a tent,” Abdullah told his son. He spoke from the same truck he said he drove across the border in four years ago.

Abdullah told Reuters he had heard from relatives in Syria that his house there was fine.

But Murshid Darwish, 55, said she had decided to stay in her tent in Arsal instead of leaving for Syria with her cousin.

“The house needs work, there are no windows, no doors…We cannot live there,” she said. “I cannot carry rocks…Once my room is fixed, I will go back.”

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was not involved in organizing the returns, and its team in Syria had so far not been able to access the villages where people were headed.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

“FIRST PHASE”

About 140 people received polio vaccines, and the Lebanese Red Cross diagnosed 43 people who received medication for acute cases, it said.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, has said Beirut is working with the Syrian state for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go home.

Ibrahim told Reuters Thursday’s return marked the “first phase out of thousands…We have not received any guarantee that they will not serve in the Syrian army. We have nothing to do with this.”

As Syrian troops and allied forces retake more territory, Lebanese officials have stepped up calls for refugees to go back to parts of Syria where violence has died down.

U.N. officials and foreign donor states have said it is not yet safe for refugees to go back to Syria, where a political deal to end the multi-sided war remains elusive.

The seven-year conflict has driven 11 million Syrians from their homes. More than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says. The Lebanese government puts the number at 1.5 million, a quarter of the population.

They are scattered across Lebanon, often in makeshift camps and severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.

Lebanese Foreign minister Gebran Bassil visited Arsal this month to press for more returns. He froze residency visa applications for UNHCR staff, accusing the agency of preventing Syrian refugees from going back.

UNHCR denies this, saying it supports return when it is safe, and major international donors have voiced dismay at what they called “false accusations”.

“We are working in various ways for the gradual removal of the obstacles that refugees see to their return, including through advocating with the concerned authorities inside Syria,” UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Reuters by email on Thursday.

“We fully respect individual decisions to return when a refugee decides that the time is ripe for him or her.”

(Reporting by Tom Perry with additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian rebel warns of ‘volcanoes of fire’ if Assad attacks south

FILE PHOTO: A fighter from the Free Syrian Army is seen in Yadouda area in Deraa, Syria May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and their Iran-backed allies will face “volcanoes of fire” if they launch a threatened offensive in the opposition-held southwest, a rebel commander told Reuters on Tuesday.

Syria’s southwest has come into focus since President Bashar al-Assad and his allies crushed the last remaining rebel pockets near Damascus and Homs.

Assad has vowed to recover opposition-held areas near the frontiers with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and government and allied forces are mobilizing. A major flareup there risks escalating the seven-year-long war that has killed an estimated half a million people.

Violence flared in several parts of the southwest on Tuesday, with government warplanes launching air strikes near a rebel-held village. But there was no sign yet of the start of the big offensive threatened by the government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

The United States last week warned it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to Syrian government violations of a “de-escalation” agreement that it underwrote with Russia last year to contain the conflict in the southwest.

“Everyone is on guard. We are still committed to the de-escalation agreement but if the regime launches any attack on any sector of the south, it will be faced by volcanoes of fire,” Nassim Abu Arra, commander of one of the main Free Syrian Army groups in southern Syria, the Youth of Sunna Forces, said.

Rebels attacked a military convoy bringing reinforcements overnight in the Khirbat Ghazala area, igniting clashes between midnight and 2 a.m., he said.

The air strikes near al-Masika village were a response to a separate rebel attack that destroyed a tank, he added.

Syria’s state-run Ikhbariya television said a child was killed in an insurgent missile attack in the same area. State news agency SANA said rebel shells had also fallen on Deraa city, killing one girl overnight, and on Sweida city, causing material damage.

Families fled the rebel-held town of Busra al-Harir, fearing it could be targeted, activists said.

“NO SURRENDER”

The conflict in the southwest has been complicated by the role of Iran-backed forces and Israeli demands for them to kept away from the occupied Golan Heights and, more widely, to be removed from Syria entirely.

Assad said earlier this month the government, at Russia’s suggestion, was seeking to strike a deal in the southwest similar to agreements that have restored its control of other areas through withdrawals of rebel forces.

But he also said there had been no results yet and blamed “Israeli and American interference”. He said the territory would be recovered by force if necessary.

Abu Arra said the reinforcements arriving in the southwest aimed to put pressure on rebels to succumb to government demands such as accepting “reconcilation” deals, or to surrender strategic positions including the Nassib crossing with Jordan.

“But we have made up our minds. There will be no retreat from the principles of the revolution or surrender of a single inch of the Syrian south,” he said.

On Tuesday the Israeli military said that a tactical Sklyark drone was lost along its “northern border” but did not say exactly where it fell. It said there was no risk of its finders gleaning any information.

A military news outlet run by Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, which supports Assad militarily in Syria, said a drone fell in the government-held Syrian town of Hader near the Golan Heights frontier.

Israel has lost a number of the hand-launched drones in the past in the Gaza Strip and media reported last year that one fell in Lebanon. They are used mainly for short-range surveillance.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean and Peter Graff)

Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans 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)

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)

Arab leaders call for probe into Syria chemical attacks, condemn Iran

Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

By Stephen Kalin and Sarah Dadouch

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – An Arab League summit called on Sunday for an international probe into the “criminal” use of chemical weapons in Syria and condemned what it saw as Iran’s interference in the affairs of other countries.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have for decades been locked in a struggle for regional supremacy that is now being played out in proxy wars in several countries, including Yemen and Syria.

“We stress our absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and we demand an independent international investigation to guarantee the application of international law against anyone proven to have used chemical weapons,” said a statement distributed to journalists.

It emphasized the need for a political solution to the multi-sided Syrian war.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have expressed support for Saturday’s missile strikes by the United States, Britain and France against alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria, while Iraq and Lebanon condemned the strikes.

Damascus denies using or possessing chemical weapons and called the strikes an act of aggression.

Military help over the past three years from Russia and Iran, which also backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shi’ite Muslim militias in Iraq, has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The communique called for more international sanctions on Iran and urged it to withdraw “its militias” from Syria and Yemen.

“The summit condemned Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries, either through igniting sectarian strife or planting militias in Arab countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and harboring al Qaeda terrorists,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference.

Iran, which denies the accusations, rejected the condemnation as the result of Saudi pressure.

“The heavy shadow of destructive Saudi policies is evident in … the final statement of the summit,” Iranian state media quoted Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying in Tehran.

“JERUSALEM SUMMIT”

Saudi Arabia, which takes over the rotating chair of the Arab summit from Jordan, announced that this gathering would be named the “Quds (Jerusalem) Summit”, a reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which Arab states condemned.

Delegates pledged to support the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. King Salman said Saudi Arabia was donating $200 million to help them, including $50 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Qatar did not send a senior official, a sign that its 10-month-old dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt is still a long way from being resolved.

The four countries severed diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charges and says the boycott is an attempt to impinge on its sovereignty.

Its delegation was headed by its permanent representative to the Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam al-Buainain, Qatar’s state news agency said.

Most of the 22 other countries sent heads of state or government. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed Qatar’s delegation at last year’s summit in Jordan.

Sheikh Tamim returned to Doha on Saturday from a U.S. trip where he met Trump. Trump publicly sided with the Saudis and Emiratis early in the crisis but is now pushing for a resolution to restore Gulf Arab unity and maintain a united front against Iran.

Asked why Qatar was not on the summit’s agenda, the Saudi foreign minister said: “Because Qatar is not on the agenda. It’s not a big issue. It’s not a big problem. It’s a very, very small problem.”

He said the issue would be resolved if Doha met the boycotting countries’ demands, which include closing the Al Jazeera television station and reducing ties with Iran.

Tunisia will host the next Arab League summit in 2019.

(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom, writing by Maha El Dahan and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, Kevin Liffey and Daniel Wallis)

Special Report: How a secret Russian airlift helps Syria’s Assad- Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/ via REUTERS/File Photo

By Rinat Sagdiev, Maria Tsvetkova and Olena Vasina

MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination.

When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.

“You too,” he warned.

The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.

The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.

The Airbus they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and U.S. aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions – moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.

The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organization has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.

The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel they need to wage their military campaign.

It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria – a deployment the Kremlin insists does not exist. Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.

Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a U.S. government blacklist.

Asked about the flights and the activities of Russian private military contractors in Syria, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin referred Reuters to the Defence Ministry – which didn’t reply to the questions. The Syrian government also didn’t reply to questions.

In response to detailed Reuters questions, Cham Wings said only that information on where it flies was available on its website.

The flights to Rostov aren’t mentioned on the site. But the journeys do appear in online flight-tracking databases. Reporters traced flights between the Rostov airport and Syria from Jan. 5, 2017, to March 11, 2018. In that time, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers.

The issue of military casualties is highly sensitive in Russia, where memories linger of operations in Chechnya and Afghanistan that dragged on for years. Friends and relatives of the contractors suspect Moscow is using the private fighters in Syria because that way it can put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers, whose deaths have to be accounted for.

Forty-four regular Russian service personnel have died in Syria since the start of the operation there in September 2015, Russian authorities have said. A Reuters tally based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials suggests that at least 40 contractors were killed between January and August 2017 alone.

One contractor killed in Syria left Russia on a date that tallies with one of the mysterious nighttime flights out of Rostov, his widow said. The death certificate issued by the Russian consulate in Damascus gave his cause of death as “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo

TRYING TO CHOKE OFF ASSAD’S ACCESS TO AIRCRAFT

To sustain his military campaign against rebels, Assad and his allies in Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militia need access to civilian aircraft to fly in men and supplies. Washington has tried to choke off access to the aircraft and their parts through export restrictions on Syria and Iran and through Treasury Department sanctions blacklisting airlines in those countries. The Treasury Department has also blacklisted several companies outside Syria, accusing them of acting as middlemen.

“These actions demonstrate our resolve to target anyone who is enabling Assad and his regime,” John E. Smith, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in testimony to a congressional committee in November.

In recent years, dozens of planes have been registered in Ukraine to two firms, Khors and Dart, that were founded by a former Soviet marine major and his onetime military comrades, according to the Ukraine national aircraft register. The planes were then sold or leased and ended up being operated by Iranian and Syrian airlines, according to the flight-tracking data.

One of the companies, Khors, and the former marine major, Sergei Tomchani, have been on a U.S. Commerce Department blacklist since 2011 for allegedly exporting aircraft to Iran and Syria without obtaining licenses from Washington.

But in the past seven years, Khors and Dart have managed to acquire or lease 84 second-hand Airbus and Boeing aircraft by passing the aircraft through layers of non-sanctioned entities, according to information collated by Reuters from national aircraft registers. Of these 84 aircraft, at least 40 have since been used in Iran, Syria and Iraq, according to data from three flight-tracking websites, which show the routes aircraft fly and give the call sign of the company operating them.

In September, the U.S. Treasury Department added Khors and Dart to its sanctions blacklist, saying they were helping sanctioned airlines procure U.S.-made aircraft. Khors and Dart, as well as Tomchani, have denied any wrongdoing related to supplying planes to sanctioned entities.

The ownership histories of some of the aircraft tracked by Reuters showed how the U.S. restrictions on supplies to Iranian and Syrian airlines may be skirted. As the ownership skips from one country to the next, the complex paper trail masks the identity of those involved in Syria’s procurement of the planes.

One of the Cham Wings Airbus A320 jets that has made the Rostov-Syria trip was, according to the Irish aircraft register, once owned by ILFC Ireland Limited, a subsidiary of Dublin-based AerCap, one of the world’s biggest aircraft-leasing firms.

In January 2015, the aircraft was removed from the Irish register, said a spokesman for the Irish Aviation Authority, which administers the register. For the next two months, the aircraft, which carried the identification number EI-DXY, vanished from national registers before showing up on the aircraft register in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian register gave its new owner as Gresham Marketing Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands. The owners of the company are two Ukrainians, Viktor Romanika and Nikolai Saverchenko, according to corporate documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Ukrainian business records show they are managers in small local businesses. Contacted by phone, Romanika said he knew nothing and hung up. Saverchenko couldn’t be reached by phone and didn’t respond to a letter delivered to the address listed for him.

In March 2015, Gresham leased EI-DXY to Dart, according to the Ukrainian aircraft register. The identification number was changed to a Ukrainian number, UR-CNU. On Aug. 20, 2015, Khors became the aircraft’s operator, the register showed.

A Cham Wings aircraft is seen at Rostov Airport in Russia, January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A Cham Wings aircraft is seen at Rostov Airport in Russia, January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A representative of the Ukraine State Aviation Service said the register was not intended as official confirmation of ownership but that there had been no complaints about the accuracy of its information.

From April that year, the aircraft was flown by Cham Wings, according to data from the flight-tracking websites.

Gillian Culhane, a spokeswoman for AerCap, the firm whose subsidiary owned the plane in 2015, didn’t respond to written questions or answer repeated phone calls seeking comment about what AerCap knew about the subsequent owners and operators of the plane. Dart and Khors didn’t respond to questions about the specific aircraft.

Four lawyers specializing in U.S. export rules say that transactions involving aircraft that end up in Iran or Syria carry significant risks for Western companies supplying the planes or equipment. Even if they had no direct dealings with a sanctioned entity, the companies supplying the aircraft can face penalties or restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, the lawyers said.

The lawyers, however, said that the legal exposure for aircraft makers such as Boeing and Airbus was minimal, because the trade involves second-hand aircraft that are generally more than 20 years old, and the planes had been through a long chain of owners before ending up with operators subject to sanctions.

Two of the lawyers, including Edward J. Krauland, who leads the international regulation and compliance group at law firm Steptoe & Johnson, said U.S. export rules apply explicitly to Boeing aircraft because they’re made in the United States. But they can also apply to Airbus jets because, in many cases, a substantial percentage of the components is of U.S. origin.

Boeing said in a statement: “The aircraft transactions described that are the subject of your inquiry did not involve The Boeing Company. Boeing maintains a robust overall trade control and sanctions compliance program.” An Airbus spokesman said, “Airbus fully respects all applicable legal requirements with regard to transactions with countries under U.N., EU, UK and U.S. sanctions.”

WAR-ZONE FLIGHTS

When Reuters sent a series of questions to Khors and Dart about their activities, Tomchani, the former marine major, called the reporter within minutes.

He said he was no longer a shareholder in either firm but was acting as a consultant to them, and that the questions had been passed on to him. He invited the reporter to meet the following day at the high-end Velyur restaurant in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

In the 90-minute meeting, he denied providing aircraft to Iran or Syria. Instead, he said, Khors and Dart had provided aircraft to third parties, which he did not identify. Those third parties, he said, supplied the planes on to the end users.

“We did not supply aircraft to Iran,” Tomchani, a man of military bearing in his late 50s, said as he sipped herbal tea. “We have nothing to do with supplying aircraft to Cham Wings.”

Neither Dart nor Khors could have sold or leased aircraft to Cham Wings because they were not the owners of the aircraft, he said.

Tomchani used to serve in a marine unit of the Soviet armed forces in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast. In 1991, after quitting the military with the rank of major, he set up Khors along with two other officers in his unit. Tomchani and his partners made a living by flying Soviet-built aircraft, sold off cheap after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in war zones.

Khors flew cargoes in Angola for the Angolan government and Defence Ministry and aid agencies during its civil war. Tomchani said his companies also operated flights in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, transporting private security contractors.

Ukraine’s register of business ownership showed that Tomchani ceased to be a shareholder in Khors after June 2010 and that he gave up his interest in Dart at some point after April 2011. He told Reuters he sold his stakes to “major businessmen,” but declined to name them.

He did say, however, that the people listed at the time of the interview in Ukraine’s business register as the owners of the two companies were merely proxies. One of the owners in the register was a mid-ranking Khors executive, one was an 81-year-old accountant for several Kiev firms, and another was someone with the same name and address as a librarian from Melitopol in southeast Ukraine.

According to the business register, the owner of 25 percent in Khors is someone called Vladimir Suchkov. The address listed for him in the register is No. 33, Elektrikov Street, Kiev. That’s the same address as the one listed in Ukrainian government procurement documents for military unit No. A0515, which comes under the command of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate.

Tomchani said he and Suchkov were old acquaintances. “He wasn’t a bad specialist,” Tomchani said. “A young lad, but not bad.” He said he believed Suchkov was living in Russia.

Reuters was unable to contact Suchkov. A telephone number listed for him was out of service. The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate’s acting head, Alexei Bakumenko, told Reuters that Suchkov doesn’t work there.

Reuters found no evidence of any other link between the trade in aircraft and Ukraine’s broader spy apparatus. Ukrainian military intelligence said it has no knowledge of the supply of aircraft to Syria, has no connection to the transport of military contractors from Russia to Syria, and hasn’t cooperated with Khors, Dart or Cham Wings.

On Jan. 9 this year, Dart changed its name to Alanna, and listed a new address and founders, according to the Ukrainian business register. On March 1, a new company, Alanna Air, took over Alanna’s assets and liabilities, the register showed.

CONTRACTORS COME BACK IN CASKETS

Although Moscow denies it is sending private military contractors to Syria, plenty of people say that’s untrue. Among them are dozens of friends and former colleagues of the fighters and people associated with the firm that recruits the men – a shadowy organization known as Wagner with no offices, not even a brass plaque on a door.

It was founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer, according to people interviewed during this investigation. Its first combat role was in eastern Ukraine in support of Moscow-backed separatists, they said. Reuters was unable to contact Utkin directly. The League of Veterans of Local Conflicts, which according to Russian media has ties to Utkin, declined to pass on a message to him, saying it had no connection to the Wagner group.

Russia has 2,000 to 3,000 contractors fighting in Syria, said Yevgeny Shabayev, local leader of a paramilitary organization in Russia who is in touch with some of the men. In a single battle in February this year, about 300 contractors were either killed or wounded, according to a military doctor and two other sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian private military contractor who has been on four missions to Syria said he arrived there on board a Cham Wings flight from Rostov. The flights were the main route for transporting the contractors, said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Vladimir. He said the contractors occasionally use Russian military aircraft too, when they can’t all fit on the Cham Wings jets.

Two employees at Rostov airport talked to Reuters about the men on the mysterious flights to Syria.

“Our understanding is that these are contractors,” said an employee who said he assisted with boarding for several of the Syria flights. He pointed to their destination, the fact there were no women among them and that they carried military-style rucksacks. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Reuters wasn’t able to establish how many passengers were carried between Russia and Syria, and it is possible that some of those on board were not in Syria in combat roles. Some may have landed in Damascus, then flown to other destinations outside Syria.

Interviews with relatives of contractors killed in Syria also indicate the A320 flights to Rostov are used to transport Russian military contractors. The widow of one contractor killed in Syria said the last time she spoke to her husband by phone was on Jan. 21 last year – the same day, according to flight-tracking data, that a Cham Wings charter flew to Syria.

“He called on the evening of the 21st … There were men talking and the sound of walkie-talkies. And by the 22nd he was already not reachable. Only text messages were reaching him,” said the woman, who had previously visited her husband at a training camp for the contractors in southern Russia.

After he was killed, she said, his body was delivered to Russia. She received a death certificate saying he had died of “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

The widows of two other contractors killed in Syria described how their husbands’ bodies arrived back home. Like the first widow, they spoke on condition of anonymity. They said representatives of the organization that recruited their husbands warned of repercussions if they spoke to the media.

The two contractors had been on previous combat tours, their widows said. The women said they received death certificates giving Syria as the location of death. Reuters saw the certificates: On one, the cause of death was listed as “carbonization of the body” – in other words, he burned to death. The other man bled to death from multiple shrapnel wounds, the certificate said.

One of the widows recounted conversations with her husband after he returned from his first tour of duty to Syria. He told her that Russian contractors there are often sent into the thick of the battle and are the first to enter captured towns, she said.

Syrian government forces then come into the town and raise their flags, he told her, taking credit for the victory.

((Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Joel Schectman and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Kari Howard and Richard Woods))

Thousands more leave enclave in Syria’s Ghouta as Assad takes back control

A convoy of buses that carry rebels and their families waits at Harasta highway outside Jobar, in Damascus, Syria March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of people departed eastern Ghouta for Syrian rebel territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday, the third group to leave under a deal brokered by Russia to surrender the enclave near Damascus to the Syrian government.

Some 7,000 people – most of them fighters and their families – left on 100 buses in the early hours of the morning, to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More buses drove into eastern Ghouta ahead of a further evacuation.

Rebels have been leaving Ghouta in batches with their families since Thursday, accepting safe passage to the Idlib region in northwestern Syria after they were beaten into retreat in a fierce assault by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

It marks the biggest defeat for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.

“We faced two choices: go to Idlib or make peace with the regime,” said Sakhr Yousef, a 24-year-old fighter with the Failaq al-Rahman faction as he was preparing to leave eastern Ghouta with his wife and four young siblings.

“Making peace with the regime is very difficult, making peace with those who bombed us with criminal Russia,” he added in a voice message to Reuters, referring to Assad’s main backer in the conflict.

The rebels being evacuated on Tuesday are leaving from a tract of territory centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka that was controlled by Failaq al-Rahman rebels.

The last remaining insurgent-held area in Ghouta is the town of Douma. The United Nations said it is highly concerned for 70,000-78,000 people it said were trapped inside.

The Islamist group that controls Douma, Jaish al-Islam, is in talks with Russia that have yet to yield a result.

DISPLACED PEOPLE SUBJECTED TO “SCREENING PROCESS”

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to Idlib. The opposition has called this a policy of “demographic change” aimed at forcing dissidents out of Syria’s main cities.

State television, broadcasting from the outskirts of Arbin, showed buses moving along a dusty road through a wasteland of heavily damaged buildings.

A correspondent with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said it could take four to five days to evacuate the tens of thousands of people who had agreed to leave Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed Lebanese group backed by Iran, has fought on Assad’s side during the war.

The Russian news agency TASS said 13,190 rebels had left eastern Ghouta in the last three days.

Many tens of thousands of people have fled eastern Ghouta this month into areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 80,000 people had left formerly besieged parts of eastern Ghouta as control shifted since March 9.

The displaced “have to proceed to collective shelters and are not permitted to leave, until they have undergone a screening process and are able to prove a sponsor”, OCHA said in a situation report.

Syrian state TV said the army freed 28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin. The Observatory said their release was part of the deal agreed by rebels.

The Syrian military split eastern Ghouta into three separate zones during its assault that began on Feb. 18 and has killed more than 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.

The government says the offensive is securing Damascus from insurgent mortar fire that regularly used to hit the capital including its Old City.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory along the southern frontier with Jordan and Israel, and enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Additional reporting Katya Golubkova; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)