UN chief Antonio Guterres called for “an immediate cessation” to military operations in south-west Syria, as the opposition began talks with Russian officers about an agreement to restore state sovereignty over rebel-held parts.

Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad have been attacking opposition-held areas in Daraa province.

Mr Guterres is “deeply alarmed by the military offensive in southwestern Syria and its devastating toll on civilians”, said a statement from his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

“The secretary general recalls that the south-west area of Syria is part of a de-escalation agreement agreed between Jordan, Russia and the United States.

“[He] calls on all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, protect civilians and facilitate safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access.”

Earlier this month, Mr Guterres made a similar call after the Assad forces launched an assault on areas in Daraa province on June 19.

Rebel negotiators said on Saturday that a six-member civilian and military committee of the southern rebels held a preliminary meeting along the administrative borders of neighbouring Sweida province.

“The committee held its first meeting with Russian officers who presented their demands,” said Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman for the central operations room of the main Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in southern Syria. A second round of talks was expected on Saturday.

On Friday, the UN refugee agency said that the number of displaced people in southern Syria has more than tripled to 160,000 in the latest fighting.

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