UPDATE 2-Air strikes pound southwest Syrian city of Deraa
(Adds rebels' claim offensive repelled)
AMMAN/BEIRUT, June 20 (Reuters) - Government air and
artillery bombardments hit rebel-held areas of the Syrian city
of Deraa, on the border with Jordan, on Tuesday after a two-day
ceasefire expired, witnesses, rebels and the army said.
Syrian state television quoting army sources said they had
resumed the offensive, which took place as U.S. and Russian
officials were holding another round of secret talks on creating
a "de-escalation zone" in southwestern Syria that would include
U.S. and Russian officials agreed a ceasefire, which ended
on Monday, during talks in Amman aimed at strengthening goodwill
before more detailed negotiations on setting up the
"de-escalation zone", diplomats in Jordan said.
On Saturday the Syrian army said it would suspend combat
operations in Deraa for 48 hours to support "reconciliation
The halt in hostilities had been widely expected to be
extended with signs of progress in the talks in Amman and an
agreement to continue the detailed discussions, diplomats said.
A rebel official said Russian jets played a major role in
the intensive raids after the army and Iranian backed militias
had resumed air and artillery bombardments in the city.
"They tried to disperse the rebel forces on several fronts.
This is a regime that does not understand truces and they will
keep trying to attack but we are ready for them," said commander
Abu Rida Abu Nabout, head of the Liwa al Tawhid rebel group
fighting in the city.
Rebels in the city and other residents have said this month
that the army's bombardment of Deraa has intensified, and
Western backed rebels said the army and Iranian backed militias
had brought more troops to the city in a possible prelude to a
campaign to wrest full control of the city. [nL8N1J900W]
The army has failed to dislodge the rebels from their
stronghold in Deraa city so far, however, and rebel forces have
thwarted the army's drive to regain a major border crossing with
Jordan and cut rebel supplies east and west of the city.
One witness said barrel bombs, artillery shells and rockets
were used in the bombardment of Deraa.
Major Issam al Rayes, spokesman for the Southern Front
grouping of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, said rebels had
thwarted a government advance towards a rebel held military base
southwest of the city near the Jordan border.
"They advanced toward the base but where then encircled by
rebels and incurred heavy losses and had to retreat," Rayes
said, adding that at least 20 army and militia fighters were
killed in what he described as a failed offensive.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is backed in the
six-year-old war by Russia, Iran and Shi'ite militias while some
of the rebels seeking to oust him are supported by the United
States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.
(Reporting by Tom Perry and Suleiman al-Khalidi, Writing by
Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Tom Brown)
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Keywords: MIDEAST CRISIS/SYRIA SOUTH (UPDATE 2)