Scores killed in Kabul blast as Afghanistan reels from attacks

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A suicide blast in a mainly Shi’ite area of Kabul killed at least 48 people on Wednesday, the latest in a wave of attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, soldiers and policemen over recent days.

The explosion, targeting an educational center in the west of the Afghan capital, tore through a large tent set up as a classroom in the courtyard, killing dozens of teenagers studying for a university entrance examination. The blast, which shattered weeks of relative calm in Kabul, also wounded at least 67, including both male and female students.

“Most of the boys at the educational center have been killed,” said Sayed Ali, who witnessed the blast. “It was horrific and many of the students were torn to pieces.”

Doctors at city hospitals, where people had gathered to try to find relatives who had been studying at the center, said many of the victims were severely burned.

Afghan men mourn after a blast in a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Afghan men mourn after a blast in a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

“My brother was studying at the center and he was killed. I’m here to get his body,” said Abdul Khaliq, waiting outside the Isteqlal hospital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Kabul blast but the attack bore the hallmark of Islamic State, which has conducted many previous attacks on Shi’ite targets. The Taliban issued a statement denying it was involved.

The explosion, which came as the central city of Ghazni struggles to recover from five days of intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces, underlined how badly security in Afghanistan has degenerated, some two months before parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Earlier on Wednesday, local officials said at least nine policemen and 35 soldiers were killed in an attack on their base in the northern province of Baghlan, the latest of a series that has killed dozens of members of the security forces nationwide.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called for the fighting to stop, saying up to 150 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Ghazni, where the public hospital was overwhelmed and water and electricity supplies cut.

“The extreme human suffering caused by the fighting in Ghazni highlights the urgent need for the war in Afghanistan to end,” the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said in a statement.

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

TALIBAN PULLBACK

The Taliban, who launched their Ghazni assault last Friday and battled Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes in the middle of the city for days, said their fighters had been pulled out to prevent further harm to the city’s population.

“They were facing severe shortages of food and drinking water as the power supply was also suspended two days ago,” a Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was providing dressing packages and oral and intravenous medicine to treat the wounded, along with electricity generators and fresh water for about 18,000 people.

The Ghazni attack, one of the Taliban’s most devastating in years, has clouded hopes for peace talks that had been prompted by an unprecedented ceasefire during the Eid celebration in June and a meeting last month between Taliban officials and a senior U.S. diplomat.

Two senior Taliban leaders told Reuters this week the group was considering announcing a ceasefire for the feast of Eid-al Adha, which begins next week, but the future of any peace process remained uncertain.

With parliamentary elections due on Oct. 20, authorities had been bracing for more attacks in Kabul and other cities, but even so, the scale of the violence has come as a shock to a government facing bitter criticism over its handling of the war.

In the southern province of Zabul, Taliban insurgents clashed with soldiers on Tuesday, forcing the government to send reinforcements from neighboring provinces to retain control of two checkposts.

The clashes killed 11 soldiers and one policeman, with three soldiers wounded, said Haji Atta Jan Haqbayan, a Zabul provincial council member.

Separately, six girls younger than 10 were killed when an unexploded mortar they picked up to play with suddenly exploded on Wednesday, officials in the eastern province of Laghman said.

(Additonal reporting by Jibran Ahmad, in PESHAWAR; Editing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones)

Iraq jails French and German citizens for life for joining Islamic State

FILE PHOTO: An Iraqi student walks past a school wall covered with drawings showing how Islamic State militants executed their prisoners in Mosul, Iraq April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An Iraqi court sentenced a French man and a German woman to life in prison on Monday for belonging to Islamic State, forging ahead with the trial of hundreds of people – many foreigners – captured after the militant group’s defeat last year.

French citizen Lahcen Ammar Gueboudj, in his 50s, and the German, Nadia Rainer Hermann, 22, had both pleaded not guilty to joining the hardline Islamist group that captured a third of Iraq and swathes of Syria in 2014.

Though Gueboudj and Hermann were tried individually, they were brought out for sentencing with 13 others tried on Monday, crowding the small courtroom.

During Gueboudj’s roughly 30-minute trial, he said he had only come to the region to retrieve his son who had joined Islamic State and had been living in its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.

“I would never have left France if my son hadn’t been in Syria,” he told the judge, through a translator, in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court.

“I know I’m crazy to have gone to Syria.”

Speaking to Reuters in French through the bars of a holding cell outside the courtroom before he was sentenced, a disheveled Gueboudj said he had signed papers he had not understood were a confession during the investigation.

Hermann and Gueboudj both told Reuters they had spoken to consular staff only once since being detained in 2017. They had court-appointed lawyers present on Monday but had neither met with nor spoken to them, they said. The sentences can be appealed.

Embassy staff and translators from both countries attended Monday’s hearing.

Hermann was sentenced in January to a year in jail for entering Iraq illegally.

Asked by the judge whether she believed in Islamic State’s ideology, she said no. However, she earlier admitted to the judge that she had received a salary of 50,000 Iraqi dinars ($42) per month, which confirmed her membership to the group.

“This whole process is confusing,” Hermann, who wore a blue prison uniform over a black abaya and a grey headscarf, told Reuters before the verdict, speaking in German from the holding cell, in the presence of Iraqi prison guards.

Hermann was the only woman being tried on charges relating to Islamic State on Monday. Iraq has been prosecuting women of various nationalities for months and was sentencing roughly 10 women a day at the peak of trials in the spring.

Around 20 foreign women, including nationals of Turkey, Germany, and Azerbaijan, have been sentenced to death for membership of Islamic State.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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)

At least 15 killed as gunmen attack Afghan government building

An Afghan policeman inspects the site of an attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

By Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – At least 15 people were killed on Tuesday in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad when gunmen stormed a government building, trapping dozens inside after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance gate, officials and witnesses said.

The attack underlines the country’s dire security situation after 17 years of war, with Islamic State increasingly claiming attacks on civilian targets even as pressure builds for peace talks between the Western-backed government and the Taliban.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement.

After several hours during which intermittent gunfire and explosions could be heard, provincial government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said the incident appeared to be over with two gunmen killed and much of the building destroyed.

He said at least 15 people had been killed and 15 wounded although the total may rise as rescue workers search the site. Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said eight had been killed and as many as 30 wounded.

One witness, a passerby named Obaidullah, said the attack began when a black car with three occupants pulled up at the entrance to a building used by the department of refugee affairs and a gunman emerged, firing around him.

One attacker blew himself up at the gate and two gunmen entered the building, in an area close to shops and government offices, he added.

Minutes later, the car blew up, wounding people in the street, Obaidullah said.

“We saw several people wounded and helped to carry them away,” he added.

As security forces cordoned off the area, gunshots and what appeared to be hand grenade explosions could be heard as a cloud of black smoke drifted into the sky.

Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said about 40 people appeared to have been caught inside the building, which caught fire early in the attack.

As the attack concluded, it was not immediately clear what had happened to them. Islamic State has claimed a number of recent attacks in the city.

Smoke rises from an area where explosions and gunshots were heard, in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

Smoke rises from an area where explosions and gunshots were heard, in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

Khogyani said the attack happened during a meeting with NGOs working on refugee-related issues. The head of the department and several other people were taken to safety, he said.

Although it is unclear whether there is any direct connection, Islamic State attacks have picked up as hopes for peace talks between the government and the Taliban have grown in the wake of last month’s three-day ceasefire.

The attacks have been concentrated in Jalalabad, the main city of Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan where Islamic State fighters first appeared toward the end of 2014.

The casualties add to a mounting toll in Afghanistan. In the western province of Farah, 11 people were killed when their bus was hit by a roadside bomb, officials said.

Also on Tuesday, unknown attackers seized 22 people from vehicles on a highway linking Kabul and Gardez, a key city in the eastern province of Paktia.

(Additional reporting by Rafiq Shirzad; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

‘Horrors that can’t be told’: Afghan women report Islamic State rapes

FILE PHOTO: An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Abdul Matin Sahak

SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A mother of three from a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan remembers the day the head of a local Islamic State group came to her village, demanding money he said her husband had promised.

“I told him we didn’t have any money but that if we found any we would send it to him. But he didn’t accept that and said I had to be married to one of his people and leave my husband and go with them,” Zarifa said.

“When I refused, the people he had with him took my children to another room and he took a gun and said if I didn’t go with him he would kill me and take my house. And he did everything he could to me.”

Even by the bloody standards of the Afghan war, Islamic State has gained an unmatched reputation for brutality, routinely beheading opponents or forcing them to sit on explosives.

But while forced marriages and rape have been among the most notable features of Islamic State rule in Iraq and Syria they have been much less widely reported in Afghanistan.

While there have been reports in Nangarhar, the eastern province where Islamic State first appeared in 2014 and in Zabul in the south, deep taboos that can make it impossible for women to report sexual abuse make it hard to know its scale.

The group has a growing presence in Zarifa’s province of Jawzjan, on the border with Turkmenistan, exploiting smuggling routes and attracting both foreign fighters as well as unemployed locals and fighting both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban.

For Zarifa, the attack forced her to leave her home in the Darzab district of south Jawzjan and seek shelter in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.

“My husband was a farmer and now I can’t face my husband and my neighbors and so, despite the danger, I left,” she said.

TEN MONTHS OF TERROR

Another woman, Samira, who escaped Darzab and now lives in Sheberghan, said fighters came to her house and took her 14 year-old sister to their commander. Like Zarifa, she did not want to use her full name because of the stigma against victims of sexual violence.

“He didn’t marry her and no one else married her but he raped her and his soldiers forced themselves on her and even the head of the village who is in Daesh forced himself on my sister and raped her,” she said. Daesh is an Arabic term for Islamic State.

“This girl was there with Daesh for 10 months but after 10 months she escaped and now she’s with us. But I can’t tell anyone about this out of shame.”

Stories like those told by Samira and Zarifa have emerged in recent months as thousands have fled Darzab.

“Daesh has committed many horrors in Darzab that can’t be told,” said the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

“Daesh does not abide by any rules and there is no doubt about the horrors people have been speaking about.”

Islamic State has no known spokesman in Afghanistan. But the accounts were broadly endorsed by government officials who say Islamic State is trying to import an entirely foreign ideology.

Documents captured in Syria in 2015 revealed ways in which Islamic State theologians regulated the use of female captives for sexual purposes.

“It is completely against our culture and traditions,” said Mohammad Radmanish, a defense ministry spokesman, who said that Darzab was not the only area where rapes and sexual slavery by Islamic State had been reported.

“When they came to our area, everyone knew what these Daesh had come for,” said Kamila, a woman from Darzab, who said that three girls were taken from the area where she lived.

“They would bind a girl or woman from a house and take her with them. At first they said that we would have to marry them. But then, when they took them, many men forced themselves on them and raped them.”

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Islamic State claims responsibility for Toronto shooting

People write messages on construction boarding after a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, Canada, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic state has claimed responsibility for a shooting in Toronto on Sunday that killed two people and wounded 13, the group’s AMAQ news agency said on Wednesday.

The attacker “was a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries,” a statement by the group said.

The group did not provide further detail or evidence for its claim.

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Amina Ismail and John Stonestreet)

Islamic State kills 215 in southwest Syria attacks: state media

Remains of a suicide bomb are seen in Sweida, Syria July 25, 2018. Sana/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants killed more than 200 people in a coordinated assault on a government-held area of southwestern Syria on Wednesday, local officials and a war monitor said, in the group’s deadliest attack in the country for years.

Jihadist fighters stormed several villages and staged suicide blasts in the provincial capital Sweida, near one of the few remote pockets still held by Islamic State after it was driven from most of its territory last year.

The head of the Sweida provincial health authority told the pro-Damascus Sham FM that 215 people were killed and 180 injured in the attack, as well as 75 Islamic State fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the attackers had killed more than 200 people including many civilians. Islamic State said in an earlier statement that it had killed more than 100 people in the attacks.

The jihadists launched simultaneous attacks on several villages northeast of Sweida city, where they clashed with government forces, state media and the Observatory said.

In the city itself, at least two attackers blew themselves up, one near a marketplace and the second in another district, state television said. State news agency SANA said two other militants were killed before they could detonate their bombs.

The Observatory said jihadists seized hostages from the villages they had attacked.

Photographs distributed on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify but which the Observatory said were genuine, purported to show the bodies of Islamic State fighters hanged from street signs by angry residents.

Sweida Governor Amer al-Eshi said authorities also arrested another attacker. “The city of Sweida is secure and calm now,” he told state-run Ikhbariyah TV.

Islamic State lost nearly all the territory it once held in Syria last year in separate offensives by the Russian-backed army and a U.S.-backed militia alliance.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has gone on to crush the last remaining rebel enclaves near the cities of Damascus and Homs and swept rebels from the southwest.

After losing its strongholds in eastern Syria last year, Islamic State launched insurgency operations from pockets of territory in desert areas.

The Observatory said government forces had forced the jihadists from all the villages they had stormed from their pocket northeast of the city.

Government troops and allied forces hold all of Sweida province except for that enclave.

The air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of the city after soldiers thwarted an attempt by Islamic State fighters to infiltrate Douma, Tima and al-Matouna villages, state media said.

With the help of Russian air power, the Syrian army has been hitting Islamic State in a separate pocket further west, near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Basin in southwest Syria remains in jihadist hands, after an army offensive defeated rebel factions in other parts of the southwest. The operation has focused on Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Hesham Hajali in Cairo, and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; editing by Stephen Powell and David Stamp)

Nigerian police say eight Boko Haram suspects confess to Chibok abduction

FILE PHOTO: A still image taken from video shows a group of girls, released by Boko Haram jihadists after kidnapping them in 2014 in the north Nigerian town of Chibok, sitting in a hall as they are welcomed by officials in Abuja, Nigeria, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/via Reuters TVREUTERS/ /File Photo

By Ola Lanre and Ahmed Kingimi

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Eight suspected members of Islamist militant group Boko Haram have confessed to involvement in the 2014 abduction of some 270 girls from the town of Chibok, the Nigeria Police Force said on Wednesday.

The mass abduction of girls from their school caused global outrage and drew attention to the militant group which has killed more than 30,000 people since 2009 in an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Abba Kyari, deputy commissioner of police, said 22 suspected members of the militant group were arrested in different locations in the neighboring northeastern states of Yobe and Borno.

“Eight of them, including a commander, have confessed to being involved in the planning and kidnap of Chibok girls,” Kyari said.

“It was an intelligence-led operation. We have been monitoring them for about six months to one year,” said Kyari, who led the team.

Nigerian authorities have convicted this year two alleged Boko Haram members to 15 and 20 years in prison for their purported role in the kidnapping of the Chibok girls.

The convictions are part of mass trials of more than 1,600 suspected members of the insurgency. Rights groups had criticized the court hearings for their secretive nature, with initial trials held behind closed doors.

With presidential elections due in February, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is under pressure to show success in the fight against Boko Haram, a group he had vowed to defeat when campaigning for 2015 elections.

The government and military have repeatedly said since late 2015 that the insurgency has been defeated. Despite that, authorities do not control all of the territory in Nigeria’s northeast, particularly around Lake Chad, and the militants frequently stage deadly, sophisticated attacks on the army and civilians.

Nigerian police are frequently accused of prisoner abuse and malpractice, claims they deny.

Many of the Chibok girls managed to escape in the hours following their abduction or were released in the last few years, including 82 who were released in an exchange deal that included several imprisoned senior members of Boko Haram. But around 100 are still missing and their condition is unknown.

(Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan hit record as suicide attacks surge

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

By James Mackenzie

KABUL (Reuters) – The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan reached a record in the first half of the year, despite last month’s ceasefire, with a surge in suicide attacks claimed by Islamic State, the United Nations said on Sunday.

Deaths rose 1 percent to 1,692, although injuries dropped 5 percent to 3,430, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its latest civilian casualty report. Overall civilian casualties were down 3 percent.

Hopes that peace may one day be agreed in Afghanistan were raised last month by a three-day truce over the Eid al-Fitr holiday which saw unprecedented scenes of Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in Kabul and other cities.

“The brief ceasefire demonstrated that the fighting can be stopped and that Afghan civilians no longer need to bear the brunt of the war,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the senior U.N. official in Afghanistan said in a statement.

But with heavy fighting seen across the country during the first half the year and repeated suicide attacks in Kabul and major provincial cities like Jalalabad, the report underlines the dire security situation facing Afghanistan.

It also pointed to increased activity by Islamic State, reflected in a doubling in casualties in Nangarhar, the eastern province whose capital is Jalalabad, where the militant group has conducted a series of attacks over recent months.

MINISTRY ATTACKED

The main causes of casualties were ground engagements between security forces and militants, roadside bombs, as well as suicide and other so-called complex attacks, which caused 22 percent more casualties than in the same period last year.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks on targets as diverse as Shi’ite shrines, offices of government ministries and aid groups, sports events and voter registration stations.

On Sunday, the day the report was issued, at least seven people were killed and more than 15 wounded by a suicide attack as staff at a government ministry were going home.

The report said two thirds of civilian casualties were caused by anti-government forces, mainly the Taliban and Islamic State.

Fifty-two percent of the casualties from suicide and complex attacks were attributed to Islamic State, often known as Daesh, while 40 percent were attributed to the Taliban.

The Taliban, who say they take great care to avoid civilian casualties, issued a statement rejecting the report as “one sided” and accused UNAMA of working in close coordination with U.S. authorities to push propaganda against them.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, there is concern about more violence as polling day approaches.

The Taliban, fighting to restore their version of strict Islamic law, have rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks, demanding that foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Robert Birsel and Keith Weir)

Syrian offensive uprooted 120,000 people so far, U.N. warns of catastrophe

Residents celebrate the army's arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, northeast of Deraa city, Syria in this handout released on June 29, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by a Syrian army offensive in the southwest since it began last week, a war monitor said on Friday, and a senior U.N. official warned of catastrophe as they risked being trapped between warring sides.

Government forces and their allies appeared to be making significant gains in eastern Deraa province, where state media said they marched into several towns. A rebel official said opposition front lines had collapsed.

The Russian-backed offensive has killed at least 98 civilians, including 19 children, since June 19, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It has also driven tens of thousands of people toward the border with Jordan and thousands more to the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the UK-based monitor said.

Israel and Jordan – which is already hosting 650,000 Syrians – say they will not let refugees in.

“We left under bombardment, barrel bombs, (air strikes by) Russian and Syrian warplanes,” said Abu Khaled al-Hariri, 36, who fled from al-Harak town to the Golan frontier with his wife and five children.

“We are waiting for God to help us, for tents, blankets, mattresses, aid for our children to eat and drink.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was a grave risk of many civilians being trapped between government forces, rebel groups and Islamic State militants who have a small foothold there, an outcome he said would be a “catastrophe”.

“The real concern is that we are going to see a repetition of what we saw in eastern Ghouta – the bloodshed, the suffering, the civilians being held, being under a siege,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have turned their focus to the rebel-held southwest since defeating the last remaining besieged insurgent pockets, including eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. The assault has so far targeted Deraa, not rebel-held parts of nearby Quneitra province at the Golan frontier which are more sensitive to Israel.

The campaign has shattered a “de-escalation” deal negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan that had mostly contained fighting in the southwest since last year.

President Bashar al-Assad pressed ahead with the offensive despite U.S. condemnations and warnings of “serious repercussions”. The United States has told rebels not to expect military support against the assault.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri on Thursday decried “U.S. silence” over the offensive and said only a “malicious deal” could explain the lack of a U.S. response.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will have a detailed discussion about Syria when they meet in July.

EASTERN DERAA PROVINCE

The war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015, when he held just a fraction of the country. Today he commands the single largest part of Syria, though much of the north and east is outside his control.

Syrian troops have seized a swathe of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city. State TV broadcast scenes of what they said were locals celebrating the army’s arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, where they said rebels were turning in their weapons.

State media said that government forces seized al-Harak and Rakham towns, and that insurgents in four other towns agreed to surrender their weapons and make “reconciliation” deals with the government.

“Most of the (people in) the eastern villages have fled to west Deraa and to Quneitra,” said Abu Shaima, a Free Syrian Army rebel spokesman.

Another rebel official said some towns were trying to negotiate deals with the state on their own. “There was a collapse in the eastern front yesterday,” he added. “The front in Deraa city is steadfast.”

Al-Manar TV, run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said the army captured a hill overlooking a road linking eastern and western parts of Deraa province – an advance that would mean rebels could no longer safely use it.

The seven-year-long war has already displaced six million people inside Syria and driven 5.5 million abroad as refugees, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

ISRAEL SENDS AID, WON’T OPEN FRONTIER

Many of the civilians on the move have fled from areas east and northeast of Deraa city and from the heavily populated rebel-held town of Nawa to its northwest.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman, speaking by phone, said some people had also crossed into government-held areas, while others had gone to a corner of the southwest held by an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Jordan reiterated its position that newly displaced Syrians must be helped inside Syria. “Jordan has reached its capacity in receiving refugees,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera late on Thursday.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, in an interview with Tel Aviv Radio 102FM, said: “I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases.”

The Israeli military said an increased number of civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations to people fleeing hostilities.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean and Raissa Kasolowsky)