Syria Gov't Resumes Anti-IS Offensive

Syria Gov't Resumes Anti-IS Offensive

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces on Monday resumed their offensive against the Islamic State group in the south of Damascus, after evacuating a group of civilians from the area, Syrian state TV reported.

The TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying a truce had been in place to evacuate women, children and elderly on Sunday night from Damascus' southern neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad.

Shortly before noon Monday, when the truce was supposed to end, government warplanes struck IS held areas as Syrian troops began pounding and advancing slowly in the remaining IS-held neighborhoods in Damascus, according to state TV.

"The Daesh terrorist organization is living its last hours" in the Damascus area, the TV's reporter said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS.

Damascus residents said warplanes were flying over the city again. The fighting resumed in the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood and the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, said some IS fighters were permitted to leave Yarmouk and the adjacent al-Tadamon neighborhood. Syria's state media denied a deal was reached to evacuate fighters.

The Observatory said Monday that a new batch of fighters and their families left late Sunday, heading east toward the Syrian desert. It added that IS fighters have been setting their offices and vehicles on fire so that government forces would not be able to seize equipment or documents belonging to the group.

President Bashar Assad's forces launched an offensive against IS militants in southern Damascus a month ago. The offensive has brought more than 70 percent of the area under government control.

The capture of these southern neighborhoods would bring the entire Syrian capital under government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.

In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman said Iranian forces will not be leaving Syria but would continue fighting "terrorism" there, at the request of the Syrian government.

Bahram Ghasemi told reporters Monday that no one can force Tehran to do anything it doesn't desire to do.

"Our presence in Syria has been based on request by Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants," he said.

Vladimir Putin's envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said on Friday that the Russian president's statement about the need for foreign troop pullout from Syria referred to Iran, Assad's key regional ally.

Putin told Assad during a meeting Thursday that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to pull out their troops from Syria.

Russia and Iran have been Assad's strongest backers and have joined the war on his side.

(KA)