Syrian troops look to isolate IS in Damascus battle

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces moved to cut off Islamic State militants in southern Damascus from nearby rebel-held suburbs Monday in an attempt to force the extremists to surrender or evacuate the district, state media reported.

The area in southern Damascus is the last part of the capital not controlled by President Bashar Assad's forces. Other insurgents in the area, including an al-Qaida-linked group, have said they would relocate to rebel-held regions in northern Syria.

State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said the government hopes to isolate IS in Hajar al-Aswad. The TV station showed thick, gray smoke billowing from the neighborhood as government forces pounded it with artillery and airstrikes. Damascus residents said the sound of explosions echoed across the capital.

The TV said IS snipers targeted journalists covering the fighting, without saying whether anyone was hurt.

Hundreds of IS militants are holed up in Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that resembles a built-up residential neighborhood. Rebels from other factions hold the nearby suburbs of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem.

IS agreed to give up its last pocket of Damascus on Friday but has yet to begin surrendering to government forces and relocating to IS-held areas elsewhere in the country.

The offensive in southern Damascus coincides with preparations by rebels to evacuate towns in the Qalamoun region, east of the capital, following an agreement that allows them to relocate to opposition-held areas in northern Syria. It marks the latest rebel capitulation, after the sprawling eastern Ghouta region returned to government control earlier this month.

The recapture by government forces of areas in southern Damascus and the Qalamoun region would give Assad control of the entire area around Damascus and the country's center, extending all the way up to Homs, for the first time in years.

IS said in a statement that the government had launched 400 airstrikes on Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk, destroying large parts of the neighborhoods. It claimed to have killed more than three dozen government forces, but there was no independent confirmation, and the extremist group often exaggerates such figures.

The U.N. said that since the fighting began last week, most of the 6,000 civilians in Yarmouk camp have been forcibly displaced to the neighboring suburb of Yalda.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people have been killed in the offensive since the fighting began last Thursday.

Government forces have escalated their campaign to retake all remaining enclaves in the capital and surrounding areas. The IS-held areas in southern Damascus are the last holdouts, after rebels evacuated the eastern Ghouta suburbs following a fierce government offensive and an alleged poison gas attack in the town of Douma.

In response to the alleged attack in Douma, the U.S., Britain and France launched missile strikes on suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Since then, there have been reports that Moscow will sell Damascus a sophisticated air defense system.

Asked about reports that Russia was planning to sell S-300 systems to Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied that he "couldn't say the matter has been settled."

"We have to wait and see what decisions Russian leadership and Syrian representatives are going to take," Lavrov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies on Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that France is committed to pushing for more dialogue among Syria's warring parties.

The phone call with Putin came Monday, just hours before Macron's state visit to the United States. It was the first call between the two leaders since the French, British and U.S. airstrikes on April 14.

Macron said he wants to work with Russia to initiate a "credible political process" and "intensify humanitarian aid to civilian populations," according to the French presidency's statement. Macron will travel to Russia on May 24-25.

Russia is a key ally of Assad, and has provided crucial air support in military campaigns going back to 2015.

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