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'Barrel bombs dropped on city' amid fresh clashes in Syria

Clashes have been reported in the Syrian city of Daraa between government forces and insurgents, with opposition activists saying government aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting broke out when rebels launched an offensive on a government-held area in central Daraa on Monday.

It said that by Tuesday, 16 pro-government fighters, including an army colonel, had been killed.

Daraa-based activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh and the Observatory said warplanes carried out raids on Daraa while helicopter gunships dropped at least eight barrels loaded with explosives onto the city.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Monday that the use of barrel bombs, which government forces have repeatedly employed throughout the six-year conflict, might bring a US response.

The clashes came as Russia's defence ministry said two Russian officers had been killed and one gravely wounded in a mortar attack in Syria.

Russia is a staunch backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has been waging an air campaign in support of his forces since 2015.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official said residents will begin evacuating two besieged areas in north-western Syria on Wednesday, in the latest population transfer arranged by the warring sides.

Hakim Baghdadi said authorities have prepared 100 buses to move 5,000 people out of the Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya.

Mr Baghdadi, a member of the relief committee for the two villages, said they will be taken first to the nearby city of Aleppo, then on to other destinations.

The predominantly Shiite villages have remained loyal to the Syrian government while the rest of the surrounding Idlib province has come under the rule of hardline Sunni rebels.

The rebel commander in charge of two opposition-held towns in western Syria said evacuations will also begin from his districts on Wednesday.

The commander said residents and fighters electing to leave will be taken out of Madaya and Zabadani on Wednesday, before the towns are returned to government control.

An arrangement between the government and rebels has linked the fate of the four besieged towns since 2015.

The UN has decried the arrangement, saying it has served to obstruct the provision of badly needed assistance.

The evacuations will be the latest in a string of population movements that have reshaped the demographics of the country.

The government has used sieges to force populations opposed to its rule out of areas of the country's largest three cities. The UN has said the "forced displacement" amounts to "war crimes".

AP

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