Thousands of displaced Syrians were heading home Saturday after rebels and the government reached a ceasefire deal in the south following more than two weeks of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.
Under the agreement announced Friday after talks between rebels and regime ally Moscow, opposition fighters will hand over territory and heavy weapons in Daraa province near the Jordanian border.
The Russia-backed regime offensive has displaced around 320,000 people since June 19, the United Nations says, including tens of thousands who fled south to the sealed border with Jordan.
Calm reigned over the region on Saturday as the two sides finalized the ceasefire deal, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
“People have started to return to their homes since yesterday, taking advantage of the calm,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
“More than 20,000 people have set off for home so far, heading to areas for which an accord has been reached in the southeastern Daraa countryside,” he said.
But others “are scared to return to regime-controlled areas, fearing their children will be arrested,” Abdel Rahman said.
The accord follows a string of similar deals with rebels for other areas of Syria, which have seen the regime retake more than 60 percent of the country, according to the Observatory.
A government takeover of Daraa would be a symbolic victory for President Bashar Assad as the province was the cradle of the uprising against him seven years ago that led to civil war.
More than 150 civilians have been killed in the regime bombing campaign on Daraa since June 19, the Observatory says.
Under Friday’s deal, rebels are expected to hand over their heavy weapons, while those who reject the agreement will be bused with their families to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, state media has said.
Government forces will also take over “all observation posts along the Syrian-Jordanian border,” it said Friday, hours after the regime regained control of the vital Nassib border crossing with Jordan.
Syrian soldiers celebrated the recapture of the main border crossing with Jordan Saturday, raising portraits of Assad and tearing down rebel flags.
Troops captured the Naseeb border crossing a day earlier. State-run Ikhbariya TV showed troops at the crossing, some flashing victory signs and pumping fists in the air as they shouted pro-Assad slogans. A soldier could be seen hoisting the Syrian flag on top of a watchtower. Another tore down the rebel flag from a building.
One officer told the TV outlet that troops have taken up positions along the border with Jordan and are removing illegal crossing points.
“We have ended their existence,” he said of the rebels. “They have no future anymore, God willing.”
State-run news agency SANA said the army deployed at the crossing after combing and clearing it of the remnants of “terrorist groups.” It said Syrian army units have also established control over the town of Nuaima in the past 24 hours.
The rebels seized control of the crossing in 2015, severing a lifeline for Syrian exports and disrupting a trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
The rebels in southern Syria once received significant backing and support from the US that has receded and all but dried up over the past few years. Although the US government negotiated a deescalation agreement for southern Syria last year, it has remained silent as Assad’s forces marched onto Daraa in the past two weeks.
The government’s offensive near the Israeli border began on June 19, and is now expected to turn more forcefully toward retaking Quneitra, potentially setting up a clash between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran unless they agree to stay away from the area as Israel demands.