BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces on Friday reached a vital border crossing with Jordan and raised the national flag for the first time in years, state media reported, reinstating sovereignty over a key region that potentially reopens the way for Syrian exports to Arab countries.
State news agency SANA said the capture of the Naseeb border crossing happened Friday afternoon after a deal was reached between rebels and Russian mediators to end the violence in southern Syria.
The capture of the Naseeb border crossing is another victory for President Bashar Assad's forces, who have regained control of most of the country's key cities from insurgents in recent years with the help of powerful allies Russia and Iran. It came after a crushing government offensive that began June 19 to retake southern Daraa province and the nearby Quneitra region that borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The assault has forced more than 330,000 residents to flee toward the sealed Jordanian border and the frontier with Israel in one of the largest displacements in the seven-year Syrian conflict. Dozens have been killed.
Rebels seized control of the crossing in 2015, cutting a major lifeline for Syrian exports and disrupting a major trade route between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich gulf countries.
There was no immediate comment from Jordan on the Syrian forces' recapture of Naseeb crossing. On Twitter, Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Amman was holding talks with all parties to the Syrian crisis focused on ensuring the return of the displaced.
"The solution is political and the protection of civilians, preventing their displacement and saving the (Syrian) brothers more suffering is everyone's responsibility," he wrote.
Earlier on Friday, rebels said they reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in Daraa and surrender the Naseeb crossing point.
Ibrahim Jabawi, spokesman for the rebels' joint operations room, said under the agreement, insurgents will begin to hand over some of their heavy weapons in return for a government pullout from several villages.
Jabawi added that Russian military police would deploy along the border with Jordan, including the Naseeb crossing, and that rebels opposed to the deal will be evacuated to rebel-held regions in northern Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 159 civilians have been killed since the offensive began two weeks ago, including 33 children.
Friday's agreement came after the bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified earlier this week after rebels rejected a deal with the Russians. The crushing new wave of attacks appears to have compelled the rebels to accept the deal.
A Syrian man on the Syrian side of the border said he and his family have been camped out near the Jordanian border for 10 days after fleeing the bombardment and airstrikes. The 70-year-old, identifying himself only as Abu Mohammed, said Syrian troops were now heading for the border.
"We are stuck here and God only knows what the regime will be doing now," he said over the phone, with sounds of children around him.
He said he was angry at Jordan for keeping its border closed "and watching us dying." Bitterly, he added the Syrian army will now take over the crossing points with Jordan "so your (Jordan's) economic interest will resume at our expense."
An Associated Press journalist on the Jordanian side of the border could see the Syrian side of the crossing known as Jaber, along with the former free zone, and some blue tents housing displaced people.
Nabaa Media, an opposition activist collective, said the latest government assault on the area killed several people in the past 24 hours including a woman and her four children in a rebel-held village in Daraa. The agency posted a video showing what it said were the women and her children lying dead in a pickup truck.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said in a statement Friday it received "horrific reports" of an entire family including four children being killed. It said the latest deaths bring to 65 the number of children reported killed in less than three weeks in southern Syria alone.
"In the largest wave of displacement to hit southern Syria since the start of the seven-year-long war, an estimated 180,000 children have been forced to flee their homes with little resource for protection, shelter or assistance," UNICEF said.
Earlier on Friday, the government-controlled Central Military Media said government forces now control most of the towns and villages on the eastern side of southern Daraa province.