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US, Russia win temporary truce from Syrian army in Aleppo

AMEER ALHALBI / AFP | Syrians evacuate an injured man following an air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Al-Qatarji, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on April 29, 2016.

Under pressure from Russia and the United States, the Syrian army agreed on Wednesday to respect a two-day truce in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo.

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The Syrian climb-down came after Washington said the US and Russia had agreed to push the warring parties to extend their shaky ceasefire.

"A truce will be in place in Aleppo for 48 hours from 1:00 am on Thursday [2200 GMT Wednesday]," Syrian army command said, according to state media.

The Russian defence ministry said its ceasefire monitors had agreed with their US counterparts to oversee this truce until midnight on May 6.

But on the ground, reporters said fierce fighting continued in both Aleppo and an area west of Damascus that was already under the ceasefire regime.

"We've seen an overall decrease in violence in those areas even though there are some reports of continued fighting in some locations," said US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry added that US officials in Geneva were coordinating with their Russian colleagues on "enhanced monitoring efforts for this renewed cessation."

And he stressed that for Washington, the "cessation of hostilities" must spread nationwide and underpin a return by both sides to peace talks in Geneva.

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, is divided between Bashar al-Assad's government forces, Western-backed opposition forces and the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

The cessation of hostilities, as diplomats call it, doesn't apply to the Islamic State (IS) group or the Nusra Front, which has caused problems in places such as Aleppo and provided the Syrian government a green light to go ahead with its military operations targeting rebel groups.

Mutliplying talks

Wednesday saw multiple new diplomatic efforts to stem the violence in Aleppo that has killed nearly 300 people in the last 13 days and all but unravelled the fragile ceasefure agreed to in February.

Talks on Syria shifted from Geneva to Berlin earlier Wednesday, where German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier held talks with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, Syria's main opposition leader Riad Hijab and France's top diplomat Jean-Marc Ayrault. The UN Security Council was also set to meet on the crisis later in the day.

France also announced plans to invite ministers from countries who support Syrian opposition groups to a meeting in Paris on May 9 to seek ways to break the political and military deadlock in the country.

“We are fighting [to ensure] the ceasefire returns straight away… I am going to invite like-minded countries to meet in Paris on Monday for a strong initiative to end the deadly bombings, so that humanitarian aid can arrive effectively and that we can once again open the way to a political solution,” French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.

Ayrault did not specify which countries France would invite, though government spokesman Stephane Le Foll earlier mentioned inviting officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.

Other countries supporting non-jihadi opposition groups battling Assad’s forces include the United States, Turkey and other European powers. They have all called on Assad to step down.

Humanitarian crisis

The first major ceasefire in Syria’s five-year civil war, sponsored by the United States and Russia, had held since February but has virtually collapsed in recent weeks, with the city of Aleppo bearing the brunt of the renewed violence. Aleppo’s humanitarian situation has become increasingly dire, and UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland said Wednesday that Syria’s government is refusing UN appeals to deliver aid to 905,000 people including those in Aleppo.

“It is a disgrace to see that while the population of Aleppo is bleeding, their options to flee have never been more difficult than now,” Egeland said.

The humanitarian task force chaired by Egeland enjoyed some success in opening up access for aid in April, but progress has stalled and requests to the Syrian government to greenlight aid convoys to six remaining besieged areas in May have largely fallen on deaf ears.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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