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Assad challenges the United States, presses assault in southwestern Syria



BEIRUT (Reuters) – Helicopters from the Syrian government threw barrel bombs in opposition areas in the southwestern part of the country on Friday for the first time in a year, a war monitor and rebel officials said, defying US demands for that President Bashar al-Assad stop the assault

A man rides a motorcycle with belongings in the camp of Deraa, Syria June 22, 2018. REUTERS / Alaa al-Faqir

Assad has vowed to recover this week the area that borders Jordan and the Golan Heights occupied by Israel and the army began to increase the assault there, threatening a zone of "de-escalation" agreed by the United States and Russia last year.

The United States reiterated on Thursday its demand that the area be respected, warning Assad and his Russian allies of "serious repercussions" of the violations. He accused Damascus of initiating air strikes, artillery and rocket attacks.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday demanded an immediate end to the military escalation in southwestern Syria, saying he was "concerned about the significant risks that these offensives represent for regional security," he said. a spokesman for the head of the UN

U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said earlier on Friday that Syria's military escalation "unequivocally violates" the de-escalation agreement and that more than 11,000 people have already been displaced.

"Russia will finally take responsibility for any further escalation in Syria," Haley said in a statement.

A major offensive would risk a broader escalation that could lead the United States deeper into the war. The Southwest is a strategic concern for Israel, an ally of the United States. UU., That this year has intensified attacks against the militia backed by Iran allied with Assad.

Barrel bombs attacked a group of rebel-controlled cities, including Busra al-Harir northeast of the city of Deraa, where the government's attack threatens to divide a finger of rebel territory that juts out to the north in lands of the government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor based in Britain, said Syrian government helicopters had dropped more than 12 barrel bombs in the area, causing damage, but no deaths were reported.

Abu Bakr al-Hassan, spokesman for the rebel group Jaish al-Thawra, which is fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said that the ammunition had been thrown in three cities and towns and that the warplanes had hit another.

Children travel in a truck with belongings in the countryside of Deraa, Syria June 22, 2018. REUTERS / Alaa al-Faqir

"I think (the bombing) is testing two things: the firmness of the fighters of the FSA and the degree of commitment of the United States to the agreement to reduce the escalation in the south, "he told Reuters.

Syrian state television said on Friday that army units had attacked "terrorist hideouts and movements" in the area.

The Syrian government has denied the use of so-called barrel bombs, containers filled with explosive material that are thrown from helicopters and can not be accurately aimed. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented their use during the conflict.

While government forces have made intensive use of artillery and rockets in the assault, they still have to resort to the kind of airpower that was instrumental in the recovery of other areas controlled by the rebels. Russian warplanes have not yet participated, say the rebels.

Still, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, was quoted as saying that Russia was helping Damascus to recover the south.

"The Syrian army now, with the support of Russian forces, is recovering its lands in the south and restoring the authority of the Syrian state," Zasypkin told the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar.

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"Israel has no justification for taking any action that obstructs the fight against terrorism," he added.

HOSTILE FORCE

A Syrian rebel commander in the south accused Iran of trying to torpedo the de-escalation agreement and promised fierce resistance. "We have many weapons," said Colonel Nassim Abu Arra, commander of the Youth group of the Sunna Forces.

The rebels in the southwest have received support, including weapons from Assad's foreign enemies during the seven-year war.

Conflict analysts believe that this support continued even after US President Donald Trump decided last year to close a military aid program administered by the Central Intelligence Agency, although it could have been reduced.

Assad has this year recovered the last remaining enclaves of insurgent territory near the capital Damascus and the city of Homs, including the densely populated eastern region of Ghouta.

But there are still large areas beyond your control. In addition to the southwest, the rebels have a strip of northwest Syria. Insurgent groups backed by Turkey also have parts of the northern border area.

And the Syrian quarter east of the Euphrates is controlled by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by the United States. The United States also has a base in Tanf, near the borders of Syria with Iraq and Jordan, which controls the road between Damascus and Baghdad.

On Thursday, a commander of the regional alliance that backs Assad said that a US attack had killed a Syrian army officer near Tanf. The Pentagon, however, said a US-backed Syrian rebel group had faced "an unidentified hostile force" near Tanf, with no casualties on either side.

Reports of Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; additional reports by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; edition of Mark Potter, James Dalgleish and G Crosse

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