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Major powers agree to plan for 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria

Michael Dalder, AFP | US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lead the International Support Group for Syria (ISSG) meeting on February 11, 2016 in Munich southern Germany.

Major powers agreed on Friday to implement a cessation of hostilities in Syria and to expand delivery of humanitarian aid to people caught up in the conflict, officials said.


US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters after a meeting in Munich that included Russia and more than a dozen other countries, said the target for implementing the nationwide cessation of fighting was a week's time. He said all participants had agreed that Syrian peace negotiations should resume in Geneva as soon as possible.

He said the cessation would not apply to the Islamic State (IS) group and other militant groups fighting in Syria.

Although foreign ministers from the International Syria Support Group managed to seal an agreement to "accelerate and expand" deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities beginning this week, their failure to agree on a ceasefire leaves the most critical step to resuming peace talks unresolved. It was not clear from their comments afterwards if deep differences regarding the truce and which groups would be eligible for it could be overcome.

Speaking for the group, Kerry hailed the results as a significant accomplishment but noted that a cessation-of-hostilities agreement, if it can be achieved, would only be a "pause" in fighting and that more work would need to be done to turn it into a fully-fledged ceasefire.

He also allowed that the agreements made were "commitments on paper" only. "The real test is whether or not all the parties honour those commitments and implement them," he told reporters after the nearly six-hour meeting at a Munich hotel, which ran into the early hours of Friday.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said ending fighting could only succeed if Russia stopped air strikes supporting Syrian government forces' advance against the opposition.

"If implemented fully and properly ... this (deal) will be an important step towards relieving the killing and suffering in Syria," Hammond said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would not stop air attacks in Syria. "Our airspace forces will continue working against these organisations," he said, referring to the IS group and al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

The US and its allies say few Russian strikes have targeted those groups, with the vast majority hitting Western-backed opposition groups.

Opposition coalition expresses cautious optimism

Syria's main opposition group welcomed the plan. It cautioned, however, that the agreement must prove to be effective before it joins political talks with government representatives in Geneva.

Asked Friday to comment on the Munich talks, Salem Meslet, spokesman for the Syrian opposition coalition known as the High Negotiations Committee, said, "We must see action on the ground in Syria."

The Syrian government has repeatedly promised humanitarian access for years but has rarely lived up to its promises.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday raised the spectre of an interminable conflict or even a world war if powers failed to negotiate an end to the fighting in Syria, which has killed 250,000 people, caused a refugee crisis and empowered IS group militants.

The first peace talks in two years between the belligerents in Syria collapsed last week before they began in the face of a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Aleppo province.

The offensive in the strategic, heavily populated Aleppo region is believed to be one of the biggest and most consequential of the five-year conflict.

A senior French diplomat said: "The Russians said they will continue bombing the terrorists. They are taking a political risk because they are accepting a negotiation in which they are committing to a cessation of hostilities. If in a week there is no change because of their bombing, then they will bear the responsibility."

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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