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Syria: Government forces enter former rebel-held district of Daraa

State news says government forces 'hoisted the national flag' as they retook the Daraa al-Balad
Locals speak with Russian forces in the rebel-held Daraa al-Balad district of the southern city of Daraa on 6 September 2021 (AFP)

Syrian government forces on Wednesday entered a previously rebel-held part of Daraa, following a Russian-brokered deal that saw opposition supporters moved to northwestern Idlib province.

State news agency SANA said army units have entered the Daraa al-Balad district and "hoisted the national flag and started setting up positions and combing the area towards announcing it free of terrorism".

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the army was expected to deploy at nine positions inside Daraa al-Balad and would inspect homes inside the former opposition neighbourhood and continue registering people who wished to stay.

The southwestern province was a hub for the 2011 uprisings that challenged the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, but since 2018 the majority of the province has been under government control after a deal was struck between the regime and rebels.

Daraa al-Balad, a district of Daraa city, had remained under opposition control and has faced heavy shelling and a crippling siege since July.

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The latest version of the surrender deal provides for Russian military police to deploy around Daraa al-Balad and the Syrian army to set up checkpoints inside.

It will also allow fighters and young men who avoided mandatory military service to sign up and stay in the city. 

Pro-Damascus radio broadcaster Sham FM reported that around 900 men had already signed up to do this.

Those who refuse the terms of the surrender are expected to be evacuated at a later date. 

Most violent summer in years

The SOHR and activists from Daraa however said dozens of opposition fighters were still present in the district and inside a displacement camp on the edges of Daraa al-Balad, awaiting the outcome of ongoing negotiations about their fate.

Activists now expect government forces to seek to fully retake other patches of the Daraa countryside that have remained outside their control since the 2018 deal.

Although bombings and assassinations had remained rife around the province since then, the escalation in Daraa al-Balad this summer has been the most violent in three years. 

It has killed 22 civilians including six children, as well as 26 members of the regime forces and 17 opposition fighters, SOHR says.

The fighting has caused more than 38,000 people to flee the southern half of the city, the United Nations has said, amid international alarm over deteriorating living conditions inside.