Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured a string of villages straddling the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra as they edge closer to a 1974 demilitarised zone with Israel.
The advancements come as more rebel fighters and their families departed southern Syria on Saturday as part of an evacuation deal reached with the government last week.
The first convoy of 55 buses, carrying some 2,800 people, arrived in northern Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province on Saturday after rebels in Quneitra agreed to hand over medium to heavy weaponry and surrender the strategic area.
Another 48 buses left Quneitra on Saturday evening as part of the ongoing evacuations, with a final convoy expected to exit on Sunday before loyalist troops assume full control of the territory.
Footage emerged, however, of one of the convoys being stopped by Iranian-backed groups near Homs.
Sources told Al Jazeera the fighters pointed their guns at the buses and asked that the drivers stop the vehicles.
Syrian forces, backed by a Russian air campaign, have been pushing into the edges of Quneitra province following a relentless aerial bombardment campaign last month that routed rebels in adjoining Deraa province.
The Syrian army wants full control over Quneitra province where Israel has deep concerns over the presence of Iranian backed groups in the so called Triangle of Death area
Western intelligence sources say the area is a bastion of Iranian-backed groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Israel signalled it would not impede the Syrian army presence in Quneitra as long as it steered away from the demilitarised zone, and said it will continue to escalate attacks along its frontier and elsewhere in Syria where it suspects Iranian-backed forces are stationed.
A commander in the regional alliance that backs Assad said the army’s victory in southwestern Syria forced Israel to accept the Syrian army’s return to the old 1974 armistice lines.
“The Israelis has been forced into submission … the file of the south has ended in favour of the Syrian army,” the commander was quoted as saying by Reuters, adding that he expected Quneitra would be completely recaptured in the coming days.
White Helmets evacuated
Meanwhile, Israel has evacuated hundreds of volunteers with the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, and their families from Syria to Jordan overnight at the request of the United States and European countries.
Jordan said on Sunday that it had taken in 800 White Helmets and their families from Israel and plans to transfer them to the UK, Canada and Germany.
Canadian officials told public broadcaster CBC that they “agreed” to accept 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, which could mean up to 250 people.
The request came as the White Helmets volunteers and their families were threatened by advancing forces of the Syrian government in the south of the war-ravaged country.