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Red Cross calls for secure aid deliveries as truce takes effect in Syria

Ameer Alhalbi, AFP | Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble following a reported air strike on Aleppo, on September 11, 2016, as airstrikes intensified ahead of a truce deal due to take effect at sunset on September 12.

An internationally brokered ceasefire in Syria began at sunset on Monday as the Red Cross told FRANCE 24 that security guarantees were required “from all parties” to ensure aid can be delivered to the country’s formerly inaccessible areas.

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The truce, the second brokered by Russia and the US this year, came into effect at 7pm local time (4pm GMT). It calls for an initial 48-hour ceasefire that would then lead into a seven-day truce to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas of war-torn Syria.

If the ceasefire holds, Moscow and Washington are set to begin an unprecedented joint targeting of jihadist forces, including the Islamic State (IS) group and the former al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.

Humanitarian agencies have voiced cautious optimism for the deal, which could see aid deliveries to the country's many inaccessible areas, particularly the divided and devastated city of Aleppo, where violence peaked over the weekend.

“I think anything that can bring some respite to the violence and that can really have the consent of all parties is important, and we’re hopeful that it can work,” Krista Armstrong, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told FRANCE 24.

“First of all, we need security guarantees from all parties and we need the ceasefire to hold so we can get into different areas – not just for 48 hours, but to assess needs and then come back with the basics like food, as well as equipment and tools to repair water and sanitation facilities,” Armstrong added.

Under the deal, both sides have pledged to allow "unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access" to besieged areas, including Aleppo city.

Truce covers ‘all Syria’

After a five-year war that has claimed more than 290,000 lives and displaced half the country’s population, the international community has been focused on easing the humanitarian situation as well as agreeing to a political transition deal that would help end the conflict.

As the truce kicked in on Monday, Russia said the cessation of hostilities would cover all of Syrian territory but that Moscow would still strike “terrorist targets”, without specifying.

A statement by the Syrian army late Monday said that it would observe a seven-day "freeze" on military operations across the country, although the army reserved the right to respond decisively "using all forms of firepower to any violation by armed groups".

Video: Syria's humanitarian crisis

Just hours ahead of the scheduled start, opposition groups were still seeking assurances before endorsing the deal.

"We want to know what the guarantees are," said Salem al-Muslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Council (HNC), which unites Syrian political and military opposition factions, in comments to AFP on Monday.

While the Free Syrian Army has said it would “cooperate positively” with the ceasefire, the hardline Islamist but influential Ahrar al-Sham group has rejected the deal.

Assad vows to retake terrain

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has officially approved the agreement, and Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shiite militia that has intervened on his behalf – has also supported the deal.

But for the agreement to hold, Russia will have to convince Assad to stop the bombardment of rebel-held areas.

The embattled Syrian president made a rare public appearance Monday at Eid al-Adha prayers in the town of Daraya outside Damascus. State media showed Assad joining the prayers at the Saad Bin Moaz mosque in Daraya, which was previously a rebel stronghold.

The mufti, or cleric, presiding over prayers hailed Daraya as an example for Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict since 2011.

"Daraya is living proof for all Syrians that the only option available to you is reconciliation and abandoning fighting," said Adnan al-Afiyuni, mufti for Damascus province.

But during a tour around Daraya, Assad once again vowed to crack down on what he calls terrorist groups.

"The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists, and to rebuild," Syrian state media quoted Assad as saying.

Over the weekend the violence intensified as Syrian government forces carried out heavy air strikes in several rebel areas, killing about 100 people. Russian warplanes were also dispatched to the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, according to Syrian activists.

With millions of Syrians marking Eid al-Adha in refugee camps across the region, in exile or under tough conditions back home, any hopes for the latest ceasefire deal remain cautious.

In government-held Damascus, resident Taher Ibrahim told the AFP that he did not expect any lasting respite from the fighting.

"Nobody among the Syrian population accepts this agreement ... [The opposition] are all the same, and none of them will commit to this truce," he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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