April 24, 2018 / 12:54 PM / 7 months ago

Syrian government plans to retake north Homs from rebels next - minister

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Syrian government plans to recover an opposition-held pocket north of Homs city soon after it completes surrender deals with armed groups around the capital Damascus, a Syrian government minister said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Having taken back the largest rebel-held area near Damascus, eastern Ghouta, in early April, the Syrian army and allied forces are close to recovering the remaining few pockets around the capital.

Pro-government forces are bombarding a jihadist enclave in south Damascus where Islamic State holds a pocket next to one held by rebel factions.

In recent days rebels in two other enclaves northeast of Damascus, Dumair and east Qalamoun, surrendered and agreed to be transferred by bus to opposition territory in northern Syria.

The Syrian army and its allies have for years employed siege and bombardment tactics to force rebels to surrender their enclaves and agree to be transferred to opposition territory in northern Syria.

Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister responsible for national reconciliation, told Reuters in an interview the government would focus on recovering an opposition-held pocket north of the city of Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.

“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” Haidar said.

Haidar said the government had for a while been dropping leaflets and communicating with rebels in the opposition-held towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla in northern Homs province.

“Today there is serious work in that area,” he said.

“Armed groups wait to feel the seriousness and determination of the state’s military action before they approach serious discussion of a reconciliation agreement.”

Haidar said such reconciliation deals are also on offer to rebels in southern Syria, where a de-escalation zone was agreed by the United States and Russia last year.

“The options are open: full reconciliation or military action where necessary.”

But he indicated that retaking areas around Damascus and Homs - the last rebel areas entirely besieged by the government - were the immediate priorities.

On Friday state media said insurgents had surrendered in the south Damascus enclave, which includes the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Hajar al-Aswad district and neighbouring areas. But pro-Syrian government forces were still bombarding the area by Tuesday.

Haidar said the militants had subsequently refused the deal and the military option was now being used.

On Tuesday Syrian state media showed footage of smoke rising from the Hajar al-Aswad area south of Damascus and said the bombardment was targeting militant positions.

Reporting by Kinda Mekieh in Damascus, Writing by Lisa Barrington and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Editing by William Maclean

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