The Syrian army and its allies made fresh advances towards rebel-held villages along the border with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, state media and opposition groups said Saturday.
The army, backed by a Russian air campaign, has been pushing into the edges of Quneitra province following an offensive last month that routed rebels in adjoining Deraa province near the Jordanian border. The groups were once backed by Washington, Jordan and Gulf states.
The offensive has restored Syrian government control over a swathe of the southwest, strategic territory at the borders with Jordan and Israel. Deraa was considered the cradle of the revolution as the first place protests erupted against the state in 2011.
The capture of a string of villages in a zone extending between the two south-western provinces, announced by the army on Saturday, comes as a second group of rebels and their relatives began evacuating to northern Syria.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 buses have arrived at a crossing point to evacuate those who refused to accept the government's return to areas rebels controlled for years. The Hezbollah run War Media Centre also reported the evacuation, a day after the first group left to the northern province Idlib, where the opposition still holds sway.
Meanwhile, the army was consolidating its control over a series of commanding heights that overlook the Golan frontier that had allowed mainly Islamist rebels who once controlled it a strong position in the sensitive border area.
A deal negotiated by Russian officers with rebels in the Quneitra area last week allows safe passage to rebels opposed to a return to state rule, while offering others who decide to stay Russian guarantees against army encroachments into their localities, rebels say.
It also allows the return of Syrian army brigades to positions held near a 1974 demilitarized zone with Israel on the Golan frontier that were abandoned after the start of the uprising in 2011.
More than 2,500 people, among them fighters from Islamist groups who have rejected the deal, left on Friday headed to opposition areas in northern Syria.
Russia's Interfax news agency, citing the Russian military, confirmed the same number have been taken by bus to rebel-held Idlib. The Syrian army wants full control over Quneitra province where Israel has deep concerns over the presence of Iranian backed militias in the so-called “Triangle of Death” area. The area is a bastion of Iranian-backed militias including Hezbollah, according to Western intelligence sources.
Israel signalled it would not impede the Syrian army presence in Quneitra as long as it steered away from the demilitarized zone, and said it will continue to escalate attacks along its frontier and elsewhere in Syria where it suspects Iranian-backed forces are stationed.
Other phases of the agreement, which includes the handover of weapons and the entry of Russian military police to some villages, were expected to be implemented in the coming days, a rebel source said.
Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering at the frontier since the Russian and Syrian aerial bombing campaign that the opposition called a scorched earth policy began a month ago.
A senior Western diplomatic source said Moscow, which has reached understandings with Israel and Jordan that made it possible to move on with the offensive, was keen to stabilise the border area to prove that its Syria intervention sought a political settlement to the seven-year-old conflict.
Russia has been exerting pressure on the Syrian army to facilitate the return of many of the displaced and has also asked the United Nations to send regular convoys of aid to ease the humanitarian crisis triggered by the offensive, U.N. officials said.
Meanwhile, the first joint humanitarian aid convoy sent by Russia and France arrived in Syria Saturday as presidents Emanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin discussed more much-needed relief supplies.
The joint humanitarian aid operation - the first between Russia and a western country - was agreed by Mr Putin and Mr Macron during talks in Saint Petersburg in May.
A Russian Antonov-124 Ruslan military cargo plane carrying more than 40 tons of medical aid and humanitarian supplies arrived at the Russian military base in Hmeimim after departing from the central French city of Chateauroux early Saturday, the Russian defence ministry said.
The aid, including medicine, medical equipment, clothes and tents, will be given to residents of Eastern Ghouta on the fringes of the capital Damascus, which was retaken by government forces in April after a five-year siege.
It will be distributed under the supervision of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).
On Saturday, Putin and Macron discussed "humanitarian aspects of the Syria settlement" including the joint mission "to render assistance to the population of Eastern Ghouta" and other international issues, the Kremlin said.
France had secured "guarantees" from Russia that the Syrian regime would not obstruct the distribution of the aid, and that it would not be misappropriated or diverted for political purposes, the foreign ministry said.
More than 1,700 civilians were killed during the Syrian regime's operation in Eastern Ghouta in March and April.
According to the Russian military, more than 160,000 people, both military and civilians, were evacuated from the region.
The medical aid is aimed at some 500 people who have been seriously injured and the 15,000 others who have lighter injuries during the fighting in Eastern Ghouta.