Syrian army declares unilateral fighting freeze in south

Damascus (AFP) –


The Syrian army on Monday unilaterally announced a halt to fighting in the country's south that would coincide with a new round of peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

The army statement, carried on state news agency SANA, said hostilities would stop in the southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra, and Sweida.

"In order to support the peace process and national reconciliation, a cessation of hostilities took hold at 12:00 pm (midday) on July 2 and will last until midnight on July 6," the statement said.

The freeze was not expected to include fighting against the Islamic State group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a wide network of sources on the ground, confirmed to AFP that fighting "almost completely stopped" across the mentioned territory.

The army did not specifically refer to the Astana talks, which open on Tuesday and are expected to last for two days.

The areas mentioned, however, form one of the four de-escalation zones agreed upon in the last round of negotiations in the Kazakh capital in May.

Violence decreased markedly across all four zones in the first few weeks after the deal was announced, but it had recently ramped up in Daraa.

Rebels and government troops have exchanged fire in the southern provincial capital by the same name.

The process is brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Moqdad said Monday that his government's delegation was on its way to Astana.

"Our delegation is about to arrive in Astana... because we have a higher interest, which is stopping bloodshed in Syria, we are taking part," he said at a news conference in Damascus.

And rebel representative General Ahmad Berri told AFP he was also travelling to Kazakhstan for the negotiations.

"I am attending the talks. There are other representatives coming, and we will announce the full list when we arrive," he said by phone.

Syria's conflict evolved from a bloody crackdown on protests in 2011 to a devastating war that has drawn in world powers, including Russia and a US-led international coalition.

More than 320,000 people are estimated to have been killed and millions have been displaced.

In addition to the talks in Astana, the United Nations is backing peace negotiations in Geneva that are set to begin in mid-July.