BEIRUT - Unidentified air strikes have killed 12 civilians in a rebel-held pocket of southern Syria as regime ally Russia presses talks for Damascus to retake the area, a monitor said Wednesday.

The deadly strikes late Tuesday hit Nawa, the last town under rebel control in the southern province of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Britain-based monitor said it could not determine whether the strikes on the town in the west of the province were carried out by the regime or its Russian ally.

The regime has in less than a month retaken more than 90 percent of Daraa province, which borders Jordan and was the cradle of Syria’s ill-fated 2011 uprising.

On Wednesday, Russian air strikes and regime barrel bombs targeted hills outside Nawa held by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate. Heavy air strikes also pounded a southwestern corner of the province controlled by the Islamic State militant group.

Preparations start to

evacuate pro-regime towns

Preparations were underway on Wednesday to evacuate thousands of people from two pro-regime Syrian towns, an AFP reporter and state media said, after three years of encirclement by hardline rebels.

No date has been set for the start of evacuations from Fuaa and Kafraya in the northwestern province of Idlib, but they could begin in the coming days.

The Shia-majority towns are the last remaining areas under siege in Syria, where government forces have also repeatedly used crippling blockades during the country’s seven-year war.

On Wednesday, barricades were lifted on the road leading into Fuaa and Kafraya, allowing 84 buses to enter, an AFP correspondent said.

Official SANA news agency also said buses had arrived to evacuate people.

“Dozens of buses and ambulances have entered the area of Fuaa and Kafraya to bring out the residents besieged by terrorists,” SANA said. The towns are besieged by rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a deal was reached Tuesday between regime backer Russia and rebel backer Turkey to evacuate the towns. It would see all residents ferried to regime-held territory in neighbouring Aleppo province, the Britain-based monitor said.

A source from HTS on Tuesday said some 6,900 people - including civilians and fighters - were to be evacuated under the deal. The source said 1,500 people would be freed from government-run jails.

The evacuation agreement reached Tuesday is not the first for the two tiny towns.

In April 2017, thousands were bussed out of Fuaa and Kafraya in exchange for parallel evacuations from two towns near Damascus that were being besieged by the government.

But a blast targeting a convoy of evacuees from Fuaa and Kafraya left 150 people dead, most of them civilians and including 72 children.