Syrian troops push south as US condemns truce breakdown

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria troops advanced against rebels in the south on Monday, in a nearly a weeklong offensive that has displaced thousands and triggered U.S. condemnation.

The U.S. State Department blamed Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, for the breakdown of a cease-fire agreement reached last year for the region, which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Jordan, which is already hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, said it refuses to accept any more, as thousands displaced by the latest violence made their way toward the border.

The pro-state Central Military Media said Syrian troops have seized most of the villages and towns in a rocky area in northeastern Daraa. The government’s aim is to reach the border with Jordan, currently in rebel hands.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government has also been bombing areas in southwestern Daraa, seeking to take back an air base captured by rebels in 2014. The Observatory said the violence, which began last week, has reached the contested city of Daraa, the provincial capital. At least 29 civilians have been killed and nearly 20,000 displaced over the past week, mostly from northeastern Daraa, the Observatory said.

Most of the displaced headed south, to areas close to the Jordanian border, according to the Observatory. Another activist-operated media group, Step News, said some of the displaced set up tents near the Golan Heights. It is not clear how close the displaced are to either border.

In remarks published Monday, Jordan’s government spokeswoman said her country will not take in Syrians fleeing the latest offensive.

Jumana Ghunaimat was quoted as saying that Jordan has already absorbed large numbers of Syrian refugees and that “we simply cannot receive more.” She said the kingdom is working with the U.S. and Russia to protect its national interests.

Jordan hosts about 660,000 registered refugees, but says the actual number is twice as high.

Washington said it was “concerned” about the situation in southern Syria and was communicating with parties on the ground, including Russia. The U.S. has called on Moscow to adhere to a de-escalation agreement for the region reached last year.

“This is once again an example of Russia flouting arrangements it has entered into with no regard for civilian lives,” the statement said.

The United States appears to have sent conflicting signals on how it might respond to the latest violence. Last month, Washington said it would take “firm and appropriate measures” to protect the cease-fire, but activists in the region say rebel groups have since been told not to expect an American intervention to defend them. The State Department’s statement did not address the issue.

The Russian Defense Ministry meanwhile said al-Qaida-linked fighters had attacked 12 areas where rebels had switched sides and allied with the government. It said the attacks were repelled and that 70 insurgents were killed, with no losses on the government side. The ministry also said it would ensure security for U.N. aid convoys entering the area.

The majority of the rebels in southern Syria were U.S- and Jordan backed, although some local al-Qaida-linked militants still operate there.

The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, meanwhile held consultations in Geneva with officials from France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the U.S. and discussed the situation on the ground. A statement from his office said “grave concerns were expressed at the ongoing military escalation in southwestern Syria” and calls were made for an immediate end to the violence.

The consultations also included talks on the way ahead on “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned UN-facilitated Geneva political process in accordance with Security Council resolution.”

The city of Daraa is where anti-government protests began in March 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring. The government’s violent response to the protests, and the rise of an armed insurgency, tipped the country into a civil war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced half the population.

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Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, Maria Danilova in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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