BEIRUT, LEBANON - Syrian government forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on a rebel-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, the latest phase in an offensive to end the insurgents' presence in southern Syria.
The government's push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families were preparing to leave from the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the rebel-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians _ evacuations that the United Nations and rights groups have decried as forced.
In Daraa, the deal will hand over areas that have been held by the rebels for years back to government control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, is the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, government forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers or 2.5 miles from the frontier with the Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra countryside while the rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian government Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where the government has been seeking to recapture a key hill in the area after failing to reach a deal with the rebels there. Capturing the hill would enable Syrian forces to move against militants linked to the Islamic State group.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa. The Syria state TV al-Ikhbariya said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 persons is likely to be completed on Sunday.