Syrian regime forces have entered Deraa city, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolt, and raised the flag, signalling a major victory for President Bashar al Assad in the seven-year conflict.
State television showed footage of officials hoisting the government’s two-star flag over the rubble of the city after rebels agreed to give it up on Thursday.
The Assad regime, backed by staunch ally Russia, is poised to take the rest of the strategic Deraa province after a bloody offensive launched last month.
Sources in the city said a Russian military police delegation entered the rebel held areas and began negotiations for its handover.
“Syrian army units enter Deraa al-Balad and raise the national flag in the main square,” SANA, Syria’s official news agency, said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, called the entry of regime forces “symbolic for now”.
Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the organisation, told The Independent the majority of the regime troops remain on the outskirts.
Rebels are in the city centre, and have not yet handed over their weapons, according to Abdelrahman. A final deal for rebel held parts of the city has yet to be implemented but will probably see the government’s opponents face two options.
Mr Abdelrahman said: “The rebels will either settle their status with the regime, hand over their heavy weapons, keep their light arms and remain in the city, or those who refuse the deal [will] head out towards the north of Syria.”
Backed by Russian forces, the Syrian army launched a bloody battle against rebels last month for control of Deraa.
The intense fighting saw more than 320,000 people flee their homes in the largest wave of displacement seen during the war. Many fled towards Jordan, which has closed its border to refugees, citing economic and security pressures.
Tens of thousands of refugees have also piled up on the border with Israel, hoping international demilitarisation treaties between Syria and Israel will protect them from a barrage of air strikes.
On Thursday the World Health Organisation demanded access to 210,000 displaced people in the southern areas of Syria it said were in urgent need of health services. The UN agency said at least 15 Syrians, including 12 children, had died in the past week due to dehydration and diseases linked to contaminated water.
The “reconciliation deal” for Deraa city is the latest in a string of similar agreements that have seen the regime recapture swathes of the country.
Rebels have in the past been forced to surrender by blistering military campaigns, stifling sieges and sometimes, chemical attacks.
Deraa city, which hosted some of the earliest anti government protests in 2011, has suffered catastrophic damage during the seven-year war, during which at least 400,000 people have been killed and 11 million displaced.