Thousands flee Daraa as Syria regime advances
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
Thousands of civilians from the southern Syrian city of Daraa and its hinterland have taken refuge in fields and orchards amid renewed airstrikes and shelling by the Syrian regime and allied militias, a local activist told Diyaruna.
Syrian regime forces took two villages in Daraa province overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday (June 26th), cutting off a pocket of opposition-held territory.
The move means the north-eastern part of the U-shaped piece of land the opposition holds is completely surrounded by the regime, AFP reported.
Regime forces took control of Busra al-Harir and Mlehat al-Atash villages in an overnight operation, achieving the regime's most significant advance in a week, the Observatory said.
The latest push places regime forces in the heart of Daraa province and directly connects them with those in adjacent Sweida province.
Fierce fighting has been raging on all fronts in the region, which had been quiet for more than a year, rural Daraa activist Jumaa al-Masalma told Diyaruna.
The past few hours have seen airstrikes and shelling in the towns of al-Lujat, Rakham, el-Nayimah, al-Mlaihah, al-Sourah, al-Hrak, el-Karak al-Sharqi, Alma and Nahtah, he said.
According to the Observatory, at least 15 opposition fighters were killed in the latest battle, with a total of 29 opposition fighters and 24 pro-regime fighters killed so far and at least 32 civilians losing their lives.
Five children and nine women are among the dead, al-Masalma said.
Opposition groups fight back
The shelling and airstrikes were accompanied by fierce fighting, as opposition groups under the central operations room in the south attempted to repel the attacks, he said.
"Reports indicate that some fighters from regime-allied groups backed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been killed," he said, "and that a large number of military vehicles have been destroyed."
Also reported was a direct hit on a Syrian regime MiG-23 warplane, and separately, the capture of a number of regime soldiers by the opposition groups.
"The most serious concern at this time is that of civilians fleeing their homes," al-Masalma said, as most of them are spending the night out in the open in informal camps out of fear of the airstrikes and shelling.
Some have obtained tents, he said, while others have found refuge in concrete-block storage sheds in the fields that were originally used by farmers as places to store tools and seed and to shelter from the sun or rain.
The UN on Tuesday said fighting has forced at least 45,000 people in southern Syria to flee, the largest displacement in the area so far, AFP reported.
"Our estimates are 45,000, maybe even higher," said Linda Tom, spokeswoman for the UN Office of Humanitarian Co-ordination (OCHA) in Syria.
The displacements have been happening increasingly fast in recent days as violence has escalated, Tom said.