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BEIRUT (AP) — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town of Nawa that killed over a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.
Separately, some 7,000 Syrians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria as part of a negotiated deal with insurgents who have besieged them for three years.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ‘frenzied’ bombing campaign in the southwestern town of Nawa and its surrounding areas continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles launched. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.
Khaled Solh, head of the local Syria Civil Defense known as White Helmets, said they have documented 14 killed while Nawa’s only hospital was bombed and rendered non-operational late Tuesday. He said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.
Images from across the frontier in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights showed large plumes of smoke rising over the Nawa area, as the bombing continued Wednesday. Hundreds of civilians were seen taking cover in shelters peppered along the frontier, apparently seeking safety in the de-militarized zone between the two countries. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, and a cease-fire deal was reached in 1974.
In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.
They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In recent days, they have turned to the last pockets of the opposition near the frontier with Israel.
Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.
Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. That has encouraged displaced civilians to return to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed.
But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught and a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again.
On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.
The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted the southern tip of the region, which is held by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group.
The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.
Meanwhile, about 7,000 Syrians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria ending their three-year siege by insurgents in control of the surrounding area. Dozens of buses arrived in the Foua and Kfraya villages to transport the evacuees Wednesday, according to Syrian state media.
Evacuations have been used as a bargaining chip for various deals between the government and insurgents and has been criticized by the U.N. as forced displacement. A negotiated deal to evacuate them earlier this year had faltered after the evacuation of only 40 from a third village.
The evacuees’ first stop is government-controlled Aleppo city.
Associated Press writer Shlomo Mor contributed to this report from Tal Fares in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
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