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Syria ceasefire holds despite accusations of violations

Sameer al-Doumy, AFP | The fragile ceasefire has been in place since February 27

Key players in Syria's war traded accusations this weekend over alleged violations of the first major ceasefire in the five-year conflict, but the truce remained largely intact on its third day.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that the shaky cease-fire was holding "by and large" despite sporadic fighting.

In the wake of the allegations, the UN’s special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura on Monday held a meeting of the ceasefire task force in Geneva.

Ahead of the meeting, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he would discuss the reports of "attacks, including by air" with both de Mistura and Ban.

Peace talks

A successful truce would create a more favourable backdrop for peace talks which collapsed in acrimony in early February as a Russia-backed regime offensive in northern Syria caused tens of thousands to flee.

The main opposition group on Sunday described the ceasefire as "positive" but vowed to lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations and foreign governments about breaches on the first day.

"We have violations here and there, but in general it is a lot better than before," said Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

Who's who: Syria's opposition forces

He said the HNC had recorded 15 violations by regime forces and it’s allies on Saturday across the country, but insisted rebel groups did not return fire.

Meslet said the HNC had not received any maps outlining which areas were included in the ceasefire or documents explaining the monitoring mechanism.

Syria's Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, said on Sunday that those maps were still being "kept secret".

The ceasefire does not apply to territory held by the Islamic State (IS) group and al Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front.

Saudi Arabia, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused Russia of flouting the ceasefire and targeting "moderate opposition" groups.

Ceasefire working ‘on the whole’

"Things will become clearer in the coming days on whether the regime and Russia are serious or not about the ceasefire," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said.

Russia, which has waged a five-month bombing campaign to support the Assad regime, blamed "moderate" rebels, Turkey and jihadists for nine ceasefire violations.

But "on the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented," Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko, head of Moscow's coordination centre in Syria, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

The Russian defence ministry told AFP violations were committed by moderate rebels as well as "terrorist organisations".

"Over the past 24 hours, nine instances of violations of cessation of hostilities have been uncovered," the Russian ministry said, citing its coordination centre at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria. The ministry said the violations were being committed by “groups of 'moderate' opposition and units of international terrorist organisations”.

'Positive assessment'

As the recriminations flew, Washington urged all sides to be patient.

"Setbacks are inevitable," a senior US administration official said.

"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."

The UN’s de Mistura aims to relaunch peace talks on March 7 if the halt in hostilities is successful and more aid is delivered.

Israel, arch-foe of Assad's other key backer Tehran, welcomed the ceasefire but warned it would not accept Iranian "aggression" or the supply of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia supporting the regime.

"It's important it remains clear any agreement in Syria must include an end to Iranian aggression aimed at Israel from Syria's territory," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Respite for Syrians

Aid groups hope to use the lull in fighting that has claimed 270,000 lives and displaced more than half the population to deliver desperately needed supplies.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said aid workers on Monday began carrying out the first deliveries of humanitarian assistance to Syrians since the truce came into effect, with 10 trucks of aid including blankets and hygiene supplies entering the besieged rebel-held town of Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of Damascus.

Prior to the ceasefire, only two aid deliveries had been made to the city this month.

In Damascus, dentistry student Mehdi al-Ani spent Sunday at his university's cafe with friends, enjoying the sunshine.

"Yesterday, we only heard two or three shells – but I pretended like I didn't hear anything. The ceasefire will continue, God willing," he said.

In Syria’s second city Aleppo, children strolled to their first day of school of the week without hugging close to the curb for fear of rocket attacks, an AFP correspondent said.

"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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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