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Syria agrees to conditional ceasefire in last rebel stronghold

Omar Haj Kadour, AFP | People gather at the site of a reported air strike on the town of Ariha, in the south of Syria's Idlib province on July 28, 2019.

Syria's government said it has agreed to a conditional ceasefire starting late Thursday in the country’s last rebel bastion, the northwestern Idlib province, where aid agencies say the regime’s offensive is growing bloodier.

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Government troops and allied Russia warplanes have been carrying out a three-month offensive against the rebel's last stronghold, which has displaced hundreds of thousands and has hit health facilities and other infrastructure.

The decision came hours after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres authorised an investigation into attacks on health facilities and schools in the rebel-held enclave, following a petition from 10 members of the UN Security Council.

Images of attacks on health facilities and residential homes were reminiscent of the peak of the violence in Syria’s eight-year conflict.

International rights groups, western countries and the UN had appealed for a ceasefire in the rebel-held area, which is home to around 3 million people

However, a war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there was no sign of a ceasefire on Thursday. It said intense clashes continued on the southern edge of the rebel stronghold.

The ceasefire announced on state media through an unnamed military official is conditional on the rebels retreating 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) deep and away from demilitarised areas that ring the stronghold.

Idlib was supposed to be a de-escalation zone under an agreement signed last September by Russia, a key Syrian government ally, and Turkey, which backs the opposition.

Failure to implement the retreat and disarmament of militants was one of the reasons why the September ceasefire collapsed. At the time, the retreat was for up to 25 kilometers (15 miles) in some areas.

The government declaration comes as a new round of talks sponsored by Russia began Thursday in the Kazakh capital, attended by Iran and Turkey. The Syrian government and the opposition are also in attendance.

UN to investigate attacks on health facilities

On Thursday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres was using his authority under the UN Charter to establish an internal board of inquiry to ascertain facts on the destruction and damage to civilian facilities that featured on the so-called "de-confliction" list given to the warring parties to prevent attacks.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock urged an end to the bombing and shelling in Idlib by Syrian and Russian warplanes, warning the Security Council Tuesday that continued violence could create the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century.

The petition from 10 Security Council members was delivered to Guterres on Tuesday asking for an investigation into attacks on medical facilities and other sites on the "de-confliction" list.

Russia's deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky, whose country backs the Syrian government, told reporters Thursday that Moscow was "amazed" at Guterres' decision to establish an investigation, calling it "a mistake" and questioning whether the UN chief had the authority to take such action.

Susannah Sirkin, policy director at Physicians for Human Rights, told the council during a meeting Tuesday on the humanitarian situation in Syria that, since President Bashar al-Assad launched the recent offensive, the organization had received reports of 46 attacks on health care facilities. So far, she said, it has verified 16 of them.

Humanitarian chief Lowcock said it was an "extremely important question" whether information provided through the de-confliction system was being used to protect civilian facilities – or to target them.

He told the council Tuesday that parties to the conflict have been notified of six different attacks in northwest Syria this year, and that "in the current environment de-confliction is not proving effective in helping to protect those who utilize the system."

Syrian first responders known as the White Helmets said Thursday that during the three-month offensive on Idlib, government forces and their allies had targeted 15 of the group's rescue centers and killed seven volunteers.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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