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UN postpones Syria peace talks to March 9, but opposition voices scepticism

© Abdulmoneam Eassa, AFP file picture | The cessation of hostilities in Syria agreement went into force on February 27, 2016

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-03-01

The United Nations will delay the next round of Syria peace talks to March 9 to allow the truce to take hold, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Tuesday.

De Mistura told reporters that the peace talks, which had initially been scheduled for March 7, were delayed “for logistical and technical reasons and also for the ceasefire to better settle down”.

The Syrian opposition, however, expressed scepticism over the new date, saying no serious discussions can begin before political prisoners are freed and blockades are lifted.

“Something must be realised on the ground regarding implementation of the Security Council resolution for negotiations to begin seriously,” Riad Nassan Agha, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), was quoted as telling Reuters.

He also said that de Mistura appeared to be “in a hurry” and that the truce was still “fragile and weak”.

“Therefore I do not know what new developments may happen between now and March 9,” Agha said.

Ceasefire violations?

Since the so-called cessation of hostilities agreement went into force on Saturday, the Syrian regime and the opposition have repeatedly accused each other of violating the ceasefire. International observers, meanwhile, have reported a decline in violence in Syria.

The ceasefire is seen by the UN as an opportunity to revive peace talks which collapsed before they had even started a month ago in Geneva.

The UN also hopes the truce will allow humanitarian aid to be sent into besieged areas where many Syrians are living in dire conditions or have been forced to flee their homes. Speaking in Washington, top NATO General Philip Breedlove said Russia and Syria had turned the refugee crisis into a "weapon" against the West.

Speaking to Germany’s ARD television network, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reiterated the allegation that the opposition are violating the truce, but said that the ceasefire still offered “a glimmer of hope” in a civil war in which more than 270,000 people have lost their lives.

“We will play our part to make the whole thing work,” Assad said.

“The terrorists have breached the deal from the first day. We as the Syrian army are refraining from responding in order to give a chance to sustain the agreement. But in the end there are limits and it all depends on the other side,” the president warned.

The opposition HNC said there had been at least three violations but by Assad forces on Tuesday and 17 the previous day.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the closure of Syria's border with Turkey to prevent supplies reaching "terrorist" groups.

The White House said it was not surprised by reports the ceasefire had been breached, but indicated it was too early to call it a failure.

"Even under the best of circumstances, we don't expect the violence to end immediately. In fact, we are certain that there will continue to be fighting, in part because of organisations like ISIL [IS group] and al-Nusra," a senior US administration official said.

Relative calm

The ceasefire appears to have brought relative calm to swathes of territory in Syria's north, south, and around the capital, where civilians were back on the streets demonstrating against the regime.

"There's something strange in this silence. We used to go to sleep and wake up with the sound of raids and artillery," said Abu Omar, 45, who runs a bakery in rebel-held east Aleppo.

However, in the besieged rebel town of Daraya, near Damascus, dozens of young men protested against the government and carried signs reading "Daraya will not kneel!"

"Of course we're going to seize this opportunity (to protest) because the rest of the time there were constant barrel bombs and shelling," explained activist Shadi Matar.

Dozens gathered in the opposition-controlled city of Aleppo on Monday waving banners that read, "The revolution continues".

The truce, however, does not include areas where the Islamic State group and al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, are present.

Regime forces clashed Tuesday with IS group fighters in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The complex patchwork of territorial control has made the truce difficult to monitor, particularly in areas where the al-Nusra Front has formed close ties with non-jihadist rebel groups.

Civilians in central Homs province say their towns are not being targeted as often, but violence has not stopped.

"There are much fewer airplanes, which is very good... (But) there's still artillery, mortar fire, and we hear the planes flying above us," said Hasaan Abu Nuh, an activist in the flashpoint town of Talbisseh.

"People still have the same routine – they still go down to the shelters when they hear the planes."

Despite backing opposing sides of Syria's war, Moscow and Washington drafted the UN-backed cessations of hostilities deal and co-chair the international task force evaluating its implementation.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2016-03-01

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