BEIRUT - Syrian government forces raised the country’s two-star flag on the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Thursday, a monitor said, four years since they were last deployed there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces had entered the buffer zone separating Syrian territory from the Israeli-annexed Golan and hoisted the flag there.

“Regime forces pulled up the Syrian flag over the Quneitra crossing, the main border point with the occupied Golan, around four years after losing control of the area,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

He said government fighters and police units entered the destroyed city of Quneitra, which lies in the buffer zone, after hardline fighters quit the area.

Al-Watan, a pro-regime newspaper, reported on Thursday that “army troops raised the Syrian flag above the Quneitra crossing, a few dozen metres from enemy Israeli troops.”

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan during the Six-Day War of 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised internationally. Some 510 square kilometres of the Golan remain on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line, with United Nations peacekeeping forces overseeing the buffer in between.

Syrian state news agency SANA said “army units deployed at the Flag Roundabout and inside the liberated city of Quneitra, after the end of the terrorist presence there.” Fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, had held Quneitra city and the adjacent frontier with the buffer zone, which has remained sealed for decades.

They were bussed out of the area on Saturday to Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, after rejecting a Russian-brokered deal to hand over territory to the regime.

Backed by Moscow, Syria’s government has been fighting for over a month to capture the country’s south, which borders both the Israeli-occupied Golan and Jordan. It has captured nearly all of the border with Jordan, including the key Nassib crossing, and now holds nearly the full length of the frontier with the Golan buffer zone. “There is just a small part of Quneitra left which will soon fall under a surrender deal,” said Abdel Rahman. “After that, the regime will have complete control of the province of Quneitra and the line dividing it from the Israeli-occupied Golan.”

IS leaves Druze reeling from heaviest losses of war

The death toll in coordinated Islamic State group attacks in Syria’s Sweida neared 250 on Thursday, the Druze-majority province’s heaviest loss of life of the seven-year civil war.

Sweida, which is mainly government-held, had been largely insulated from the conflict raging in the rest of the country since 2011.

But Wednesday’s onslaught shattered the relative calm and showed that IS retains the ability to mount deadly attacks against civilians, despite being ousted from their last remaining urban pockets in recent months.

Four suicide bombers struck the city of Sweida, while other IS fighters attacked villages to its north and east with guns and explosives.

The death toll reached 246 on Thursday, 135 of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. The others killed were pro-government fighters or residents who had taken up arms to defend their villages.

“The toll keeps rising as civilians who were wounded are dying and people who were unaccounted for are found dead,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

State television broadcast footage of the funeral processions in Sweida, showing men in the traditional white caps of the Druze minority exchanging condolences.

Men carried caskets draped in the two-star government flag and pictures of those killed against a backdrop of the rainbow colours that represent the Druze community.

At least 56 militants died carrying out the assault.

IS claimed responsibility in a series of statements on its propaganda channels on Wednesday.

It posted gruesome photographs showing militants beheading at least four men it said were government fighters it had captured in Sweida.

The assault came after the militants suffered a series of defeats that saw them ousted from the last urban pockets of the sprawling cross-border “caliphate” they proclaimed in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

In May, the last IS fighters in Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus were bused out with their relatives to desert territory still held by the group.

News websites in Sweida alleged that some of the militants who took part in Wednesday’s attack had been given safe passage out of Yarmuk.

They posted images that purported to show IS fighters killed in the assault with identification cards showing they were from Yarmuk.

Zeina, a resident of the tiny village of Al-Matuna, said her family woke up to the sound of gunfire and grenade blasts at around 5:30 am (0230 GMT) on Wednesday.

“My relative shot back at one of the fighters outside our home and we heard him scream: ‘The infidels have killed me’,” she told AFP.

Her cousin and his wife were both killed. “The villages that were attacked were on edge last night, and all the men were on high alert,” Zeina, 32, said on Thursday.

State news agency SANA said dozens were killed in the assault but did not give a specific toll.

It said calm returned to Sweida late on Wednesday after government forces and armed villagers surrounded the IS fighters and killed them.

The assault drew condemnation from the United Nations as well as government allies Russia and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

“We condemn this disgraceful crime, its perpetrators, and anyone who stands behind it and the takfiri (extremist Muslim) ideology that these terrorist groups adopt,” Hezbollah said in a statement on Thursday.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari condemned the “terrorist bombing in Sweida city”, saying all civilians should be protected.

Syria’s Druze minority makes up around three percent of the population. They are regarded as heretics by the Sunni Muslim extremists of IS.