South Syria Jihadists Say They Will Trade Kidnapped Druze for Evacuation

A Syrian man rides his motorcycle past damaged buildings in the southern city of Daraa, on March 16, 2017. Daraa province, the cradle of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, is mostly held by the rebels but pro-government forces and Islamic State are also present. / AFP PHOTO …
MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty

(AFP) BEIRUT, Lebanon — Dozens of Islamic State group fighters were cornered in a pocket of Syria’s Daraa on Tuesday after losing all other territory there to a Russian-backed regime assault, a monitor said.

To get themselves out, IS was using the release of 30 Druze women and children it kidnapped last week as a bargaining chip, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“There have been talks since yesterday between regime forces and IS to evacuate around 100 IS fighters and their families from the southwest part of Daraa to the Badiya,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Badiya refers to the vast desert stretching from central Syria to the eastern border with Iraq, and where IS still holds territory.

“In exchange, IS would release 30 hostages it took from Sweida last week,” said Abdel Rahman.

“To put pressure on IS, Russian warplanes carried out strikes on the area today,” he added.

IS abducted the Druze women and children from a remote village in Sweida, a province directly east of Daraa, during a deadly rampage on July 25 that left more than 250 people dead in the minority-populated area.

However, a video published by local news outlets appeared to show one of the female hostages demanding Syria’s government halt its assault on the IS-held part of Daraa.

After recapturing the vast majority of Daraa and neighbouring Quneitra from mainstream rebels, Syrian troops turned to IS areas of control in the two provinces.

In around two weeks, they have whittled down IS territory to the “surrounded” zone along the border with Jordan, both the Britain-based Observatory and Syrian state media say.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Monday it expected the group would collapse “within days” but made no mention of negotiations.

The evacuation deal would not be the first between IS and Syrian government representatives.

In May, jihadists were bussed out of the Yarmuk camp, their last area of control in Damascus, paving the way for the government’s full recapture of the capital.

IS fighters from Yarmuk were transferred to the Badiya, and several local outlets alleged those relocated jihadists carried out the Sweida attacks.

The suicide blasts, shootings, and stabbings were the deadliest ever for Sweida, which is mostly regime-held and had been relatively insulated from Syria’s seven-year war.

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