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Syria: Army 'kill six people' in bombing of rebel enclave Daraa

Residents say the bodies were pulled out of bombarded houses as the government's siege of the city continues
Daraa, pictured on 16 August, has now become a ghost town after weeks of intermittent fighting and shelling amid a continuing siege (AFP)

Syria's military bombarded the last rebel enclave in the southern city of Daraa on Sunday, killing at least six people in one of the deadliest attacks in its siege of the birthplace of the country's uprising, residents said.

The army declined to comment on the reports but said in a statement it was losing patience with what it called "armed groups and terrorists" in the neighbourhood.

Tensions in the area since a reconciliation agreement in 2018 have seen dozens of former rebels and pro-government troops assassinated.

State media regularly uses the term terrorist to refer to opposition fighters.

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Since late June, local armed groups have exchanged artillery fire with government forces and Damascus has imposed a crippling siege on the city's southern districts of Daraa al-Balad, seen as a hub for former rebels.

An elite division of the army, backed by Iranian militias, has blocked food and fuel deliveries to Daraa al Balad as it presses the rebels to surrender three years after government forces retook the rest of the area near the border with Jordan.

"They are using so-called elephant rockets indiscriminately," local offical Abu Jehad al Horani told Reuters, referring to improvised missiles. Explosions could be heard in the background.

Residents said the bodies of six people were pulled out of bombarded houses in the centre of the Daraa neighbourhood which has seen months of violence since a reconciliation agreement was signed with Damascus in 2018.

The Syrian military's pro-Iran Fourth Division, the main force in the southern province, backed by Tehran-financed local militias, have encircled the bastion for two months.

Russian efforts thwarted

Local officials, residents and some army officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the offensive is an attempt to undermine Russian efforts to resolve the standoff without an all-out assault.

Russian generals holding talks with local figures and army commanders announced a plan on 14 August that would allow the army to enter but giving guarantees to residents against reprisals and offer safe passage to former rebels to leave for other opposition areas in northwest Syria.

Buses carrying some of the rebels and civilians from Daraa arrived on Friday morning in Turkey-controlled northern Syria, but the Russian-brokered talks appeared to have stalled.

On Tuesday, Russian military police, along with forces from the Eighth Brigade - comprised of former rebels supported by Moscow - had entered Daraa and removed a major military intelligence checkpoint that had been helping to uphold the siege.

Hundreds of civilians gathered in front of the checkpoint to say goodbye to their relatives and celebrate the apparent end of the siege without pro-Iranian forces entering the city. 

However, after the Russian forces withdrew from the city along with the forces of the Eighth Brigade, members of the military security checkpoint opened fire on the civilians to disperse them, killing one civilian and wounding five others.

On Thursday, government forces targeted the city of Tafas in the west of Daraa province with rocket attacks - killing two women and wounding six people - in conjunction with the bombing of the city of Daraa.

'We hold Russia responsible'

In 2018, the Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of Daraa province which also borders Israel's Golan Heights.

Moscow gave guarantees to Israel and Washington at the time that it would prevent Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the area.

That deal forced thousands of western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons but kept the army from entering Daraa al Balad, whose administration remained in rebel hands.

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"We hold Russia responsible for any child who gets injured. This war is being imposed on us by Iran and the Russians are watching," Abu Yusef al Masalmeh, an elder, told Reuters.

Washington and major western powers have expressed concern about Assad forces' military campaign in Daraa, which they say tests Russia's pledges to maintain stability and rein in Iranian-militias in the border area.

Daraa has now become a ghost town after weeks of intermittent fighting and shelling during which the army has prevented food, medical and fuel supplies coming in but opened a corridor for civilians to leave, residents and local officials say.

Last week, the British Ambassador to the UN James Kariuki called for an end to the siege, saying the situation there was severe.

“The UK remains deeply concerned about the situation in Daraa," said Kariuki.

"Fifty thousand civilians have been besieged there since June. Heavy bombardment has led to the displacement of 37,000 people.”