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‘Last chance’ Syria ceasefire enters first day

By AFP 13 September 2016

by Karam al-Masri and Maher al-Mounes A US- and Russia-brokered ceasefire dubbed by Washington as perhaps the "last chance to save Syria" entered its first full day Tuesday, amid scepticism over how long it would hold.

An initial 48-hour truce came into force at sundown on Monday across Syria except in areas held by jihadists such as the Islamic State group.

AFP correspondents in Syria’s devastated second city Aleppo, divided between the rebel-held east and regime-controlled west since mid-2012, said fighting appeared to have stopped as the ceasefire took effect.

A final rocket was fired from the east into government areas just five minutes before 7:00 pm local time (1600 GMT).

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said later in the evening it was “quiet” on nearly all fronts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Washington it was “far too early to draw conclusions”, but noted that reports he received two hours after the truce came into effect suggested “some reduction” in violence.

“For all the doubts that remain, and there will be challenges in the days to come, this plan has a chance to work,” he said of the deal he agreed on Friday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

“And I urge all the parties to support it because it may be the last chance that one has to save a united Syria,” Kerry said.

On the ground in Syria, residents hoped for the best. 

“I was checking the time all day, waiting for it to turn 7:00,” said Khaled al-Muraweh, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in western Aleppo’s Furqan district.

“I hope the ceasefire holds so I can see my brother who lives in the opposition-held part of the city.”

In the east, residents celebrated the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“This was the calmest day since I got married a week ago,” said Shadi Saber, 26.

– ‘We aren’t very hopeful’ -Syria’s armed forces announced a seven-day “freeze” on military operations, but opposition forces have yet to formally sign up to the truce.

The deal’s fragility was underscored even before it took effect when President Bashar al-Assad vowed to retake all of Syria from “terrorists”.

It is the latest in a series of efforts to try to halt Syria’s five-year war that has killed more than 290,000 people and displaced half the population.

Under the deal, fighting will halt across areas not held by jihadists and aid deliveries to besieged areas will begin, with government and rebel forces ensuring unimpeded humanitarian access to Aleppo in particular.

The ceasefire will be renewed every 48 hours and, if it holds for a week, Moscow and Washington will begin an unprecedented joint campaign to target jihadist forces.

Senior Russian military official Sergei Rudskoi said the “cessation of hostilities is being resumed across all the territory of Syria” but that Moscow would “continue to carry out strikes against terrorist targets”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura could invite parties to new peace talks “at the very beginning of October”.

Kerry also said that the only “realistic and possible solution” to the conflict would be a return to UN-mediated peace talks.

Just before the truce began, the Observatory reported 13 people killed by regime shelling of the rebel town of Douma near Damascus and another 13 killed in unidentified raids in Idlib province.

Bombardment rocked the central town of Talbisseh all day, an activist there said, finally quieting down as the truce came into effect.

“We spent Eid in our bomb shelters and basements today,” said Hassan Abu Nuh of the Muslim holiday.

– Rebels demand ‘guarantees’ -But Syria’s opposition and rebels remain deeply sceptical and have yet to endorse the deal. 

Salem al-Muslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee opposition umbrella group, demanded “guarantees” on which rebel groups would be targeted. 

A crucial part of the deal calls for rebels to distance themselves from the jihadist Fateh al-Sham Front — previously known as Al-Nusra Front — before joint US-Russian operations begin.

But Fateh al-Sham cooperates closely with many of Syria’s rebels, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction which has condemned the Russian-US deal.

The Syrian government and its allies Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement have backed the truce.

But on Monday, Assad made clear that “the Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists”.

“The armed forces are continuing their work, relentlessly and without hesitation, regardless of internal or external circumstances,” he said as he toured a former rebel stronghold near Damascus. 

Also on Monday the Pentagon confirmed that a US air strike killed Islamic State leader and spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani in northern Syria last month.

Soon after the strike against Adnani on August 30 Russia said it was responsible for his death, but Pentagon officials dismissed the claim as a “joke.”

kar-mam/mjg/hkb/tm/mtp

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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