Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias launched an assault on Bedouin villages in southeast Syria on Monday to consolidate control of a swathe of desert stretching to the Iraqi border, Western-backed rebels said.
The rebels said they came under attack at dawn in a sparsely populated desert area that lies east of the pro-government controlled city of Sweida, mainly inhabited by the Druze minority.
The air and ground offensive, backed by Russian air power, was waged on eight villages from Tal Asfar to Tlul al Shuhaib that had been seized at the end of March by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels from Islamic State after the hardline militants had retreated to regroup further north.
"This is the biggest attack by the regime and on the villages of eastern Sweida. They have used all types of weapons from aerial bombing to artillery and an unprecedented ground offensive," said Mohammad Adnan, spokesman of Jaish Ahrar al Ashaer, a rebel group composed of tribal fighters operating in the border area with Jordan.
"In the years when Daesh controlled these area, the army never clashed with them," Adnan added.
Adnan later said the army was able to seize at least seven villages. An army statement said they had recaptured several towns, villages and strategic hilltops in the eastern Sweida countryside.
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