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Syrian Forces Press Offensive Despite IS Threats to Hostages

FILE - Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, April 29, 2018.
FILE - Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, April 29, 2018.

Syrian government forces pressed ahead with their offensive in the country's south on Monday despite threats by the Islamic State group to kill civilians it recently captured there.

Syrian state TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked war monitoring group, both reported government attacks on the Yarmouk basin region in southern Syria.

The area is controlled by a group linked to IS that has been in retreat in recent weeks near the border with Jordan and the frontier of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syrian state TV aired live footage from the area in which troops pounded IS positions with multiple rocket launchers.

The Observatory reported that government helicopter gunships pounded several villages held by IS, including Shajara, Abdeen and Koya.

The Observatory said some 4,000 civilians are still present in the small pocket controlled by IS-linked fighters.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said that government forces and their allies entered the IS stronghold of Shajara from two fronts on Monday, without giving further details.

The Observatory said the offensive resumed Monday after a day of relative calm following the release of a video on Saturday in which a woman said she was being held with other women. The woman said they could be freed if the government releases IS detainees and halts the offensive. She said if the demands were not met the militants would kill the captives.

The extremists abducted around 18 people, mostly women, in a wave of attacks in the nearby province of Sweida last Wednesday that killed more than 200 people.

The Sweida 24, an activist collective in Sweida, said IS sent the photos of 14 women they are holding to their relatives, saying they want to negotiate over them.

Sweida 24 said IS is believed to be holding 30 people, including 20 women whose ages range between 18 to 60. It said IS is also believed to be holding 16 young boys and girls.

The activist group said the bodies of two women were found near the village of Shabki, a focus of Wednesday's attack. One had been shot in the head and the other, an elderly woman, apparently died of exhaustion. Four other women were found alive hiding in a cave, it said.

Those abducted are members of the minority Druze sect. The Druze, followers of an esoteric offshoot of Islam, have kept their own local militias in the area. The Sunni Muslim extremists of IS view them as apostates, and have a history of abducting members of other religious minorities and keeping women as sex slaves.

Until Wednesday, Sweida, home to a predominantly Druze community, had largely been spared from Syria's seven-year-long civil war.

IS has been driven from virtually all the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq, but holds scattered pockets of territory in southern Syria and along the border.