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Syrian Troops Advance in South         06/24 11:36

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces advanced deeper into the southern 
province of Daraa Sunday under the cover of airstrikes, entering new villages 
amid reports that the U.S. has told rebels not to expect an American 
intervention to defend them from the army's offensive.

   Syrian government forces have been on the offensive in eastern parts of 
Daraa province for the past five days in an operation that aims to reach a main 
border crossing point with Jordan. The push comes two months after government 
forces regained control of eastern rebel-held eastern suburbs of the capital 
Damascus that freed thousands of government soldiers for the new battle in 
Daraa province.

   Opposition activists have been reporting for days that President Bashar 
Assad's government has sent some of its elite units to the south including the 
Republican Guards and the Tiger force that is commanded by Brig. General Suheil 
al-Hassan who is widely known as Nimr, Arabic for tiger.

   The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Daraa-based 
opposition activist Osama Hourani said that the U.S. has informed rebel groups 
in southern Syria that Washington will not intervene in the operations to 
defend them against the government offensive that is ongoing under the cover of 
Russian airstrikes.

   There was no immediate comment from Washington but if true the decision 
would be a major reversal from earlier pronouncements.

   The United States warned last month it would take "firm and appropriate 
measures" to protect a cease-fire in southern Syria if government forces move 
against rebels there. The region has also been a source of regional tensions 
between Iran and Israel in recent months.

   "It is clear that since yesterday the Russians and the (Syrian) regime have 
been given the green light to regain control of Houran," Hourani said referring 
to the region that includes Daraa, the nearby region of Quneitra and parts of 
Sweida province. "The proof is that after the rebels received the (American) 
message Russian warplanes joined the battle."

   The United States, Russia, and Jordan agreed last year to include Daraa in a 
"de-escalation zone" and freeze the lines of conflict there. But the area has 
been tense following a series of recent Israeli strikes on Syrian and Iranian 
forces. Iran is a close ally of Assad, and its advisers are embedded with his 
troops.

   Syrian state news agency SANA said Sunday that troops made territorial gains 
in al-Lujat and other areas including the village of Jadal on the eastern edge 
of Daraa province.

   Russia's Defense Ministry said some rebels have voluntarily joined forces 
with Syrian government forces adding that Syrian troops repelled an attack by 
al-Qaida-linked fighters in Daraa.

   State news agency SANA said that rebels shelled the southern government-held 
city of Sweida wounding three people.

   The Observatory said government forces reached the rebel-stronghold of Busra 
al-Harir where fighting is ongoing inside the town.

   In an interview aired Sunday, Assad said Syria has not possessed chemical 
weapons since it got rid of them five years ago and that allegations of their 
use are a pretext for invasion by other countries. Assad's comments came in an 
interview with Russia's state-controlled NTV television channel.

   "We fully eliminated chemical weapons. We haven't had them in Syria since 
2013," Assad said in the interview.

   Syria has been charged repeatedly with using chemical weapons in its civil 
war, most recently in April in the town of Douma. The United States, France and 
the United Kingdom launched air strikes in retaliation.

   "Americans constantly lie and attack immediately," Assad said in the 
interview.

   Assad said reconstructing Syria after the devastation wrought by the war 
could cost $400, but said "we have enough means to restore our country, we are 
sure about that" and that funds could be sought from the Syrian diaspora.


(KA)

 
 
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