Beirut, July 16, 2018 (AFP)
Syrian regime forces backed by Russia made sweeping advances on Monday against rebels holding out in the country's south, a monitor and state media said.
Syria's government has been battling to oust rebels from the strategic southwestern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra since June 19, with a mix of heavy bombardment, ground attacks and negotiated surrenders.
Russian-backed Syrian troops now hold more than 80 percent of Daraa province but scored fresh gains Monday against remaining opposition forces in its western countryside and in neighbouring Quneitra.
Quneitra also borders the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel, which has been on high alert since hostilities ramped up in the south nearly a month ago.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that regime units and allied fighters had made a "quick advance" against rebels in the western part of Daraa.
"Syrian regime forces captured the town of Al-Hara, as well as Samlin, Al-Tiha and Zimrin," said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said regime forces had ousted rebels from Al-Tiha in a military advance, while opposition forces in Al-Hara had agreed a surrender deal.
Fighters in a nearby town, Nawa, were in talks for a similar agreement, he added.
Under such agreements, opposition forces hand over territory as well as their heavy and medium weapons to government troops in exchange for a halt to bombing.
But jihadists holding a hilltop adjacent to Al-Hara refused to agree to a handover, said the Observatory.
The regime and Russia responded by heavily bombing the hilltop, killing 30 fighters from Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Regime forces briefly overran the hilltop on Monday but an HTS ambush left 12 regime forces dead and forced them to retreat, Abdel Rahman said.
Citing a military source, Syrian state news agency SANA also said the army had captured a string of villages including Al-Tiha and Zimrin.
Russian and Syrian air strikes also pounded Quneitra province for a second day on Monday, the Observatory said.