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Media Activists Fear for Their Lives in Southwestern Syria

FILE - People who fled Daraa province gather in the Quneitra countryside, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, July 5, 2018, in this photo provided by Nabaa Media, a Syrian opposition media outlet.

Several media activists and citizen journalists based in southwestern Syria appealed on Wednesday for help so that they can leave the region as it is on the verge of falling into the hands of government forces.

The appeal came as the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement saying that at least 70 Syrian journalists are "trapped" in the country's southwest, where government forces have been on the offensive for the past three weeks.

The opposition media activists say they fear for their lives if captured by government troops, adding that some citizen journalists went missing after Syrian forces took the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, earlier this year and that their fate remains unknown.

Since July 19, government forces have captured most of southwestern Daraa province and control much of the border with Jordan. That has left most of the remaining citizen journalists trapped in nearby Quneitra province, along the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"We want to be evacuated from Quneitra to Turkey or any other place in the world," said Quneitra-based citizen journalist Jalal al-Ahmad.

Al-Ahmad and two other citizen journalists who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone said Russia-brokered deals to evacuate Syrian rebels and their families from the region do not include media activists.

"No one has discussed the fate of journalists so far," al-Ahmad said, adding that many fear death under torture in the hands of Syrian troops after they take the area. "We have received death threats over the phone and through Facebook."

Another citizen journalist who goes by the name of Maher Hariri said that they are under siege and "want someone to save our lives. We want to go to any place that is safe."

Syria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, according to CPJ. At least 120 journalists have been killed in the country in relation to their work since the conflict began in 2011, according to CPJ research. At the time of CPJ's most recent prison census, at least seven journalists were in Syrian state prisons while many others are missing.

"Given the danger from fighting, as well as Syrian security services' heavy-handed treatment of journalists and media workers in the past, it is no wonder that the journalists in Daraa and Quneitra are afraid," CPJ's Mideast and North Africa coordinator, Sherif Mansour, said from Washington.

"We call on all governments in the region to work together to ensure that the journalists' well-being is safe-guarded," he added.

Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded on Wednesday areas in the nearby Yarmouk Basin controlled by a faction linked to the Islamic State group. The strikes came a day after a suicide attack in the village of Zeizoun killed 14 troops, a war monitor said.

The Syrian side of the Yarmouk Basin is controlled by the IS-linked Khaled bin al-Waleed Army.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrikes came as the government continued to send reinforcements to the area ahead of a ground offensive. The extremists are holding about 30,000 civilians there as ``human shields,'' the Observatory added.

The IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency carried the militants' claim for the attack in Zeizoun, which was captured by government forces earlier this week as part of the offensive in southern Syria. The Observatory said the suicide bombing killed 14 soldiers and pro-government gunmen.