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Truce takes hold in Syria's Aleppo

AFP , Thursday 5 May 2016
Civil defense members work at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel held area of Aleppo's Baedeen district, Syria, May 3, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

A 48-hour ceasefire took hold Thursday in Syria's battered second city of Aleppo after President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebel forces gave in to mounting diplomatic pressure.

Relieved residents returned to the streets after two weeks of heavy fighting in the divided metropolis, a key battleground in Syria's five-year civil war.

The Syrian army said late on Wednesday that it had agreed to calls from Russia and the United States for a two-day truce in Aleppo that would begin from 1:00 am on Thursday.

The agreement followed an intense diplomatic push by Moscow and Washington -- the co-sponsors of a February 27 ceasefire agreement that had begun to fall apart -- to salvage peace efforts.

Renewed fighting in recent days, especially in and around Aleppo, had threatened the full collapse of the ceasefire, a landmark in attempts to finally resolve a conflict that has left more than 270,000 dead.

More than 280 civilians were reported killed since April 22 in the clashes in Aleppo, with regime air strikes pounding the opposition-held east while rebels fired a barrage of rockets into the government-controlled west.

Early on Thursday, an AFP correspondent in the city said there had been no signs of fresh air raids since the ceasefire took effect.

As residents emerged, shopkeepers were reopening their doors while fruit and vegetable markets -- one of which was struck in an April 24 raid that left 12 dead -- were again up and running.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, confirmed there had been no bombing in the city, though it said a civilian had died in a western district from rebel shelling that came minutes after the ceasefire took effect.

After a whirlwind of talks involving diplomats from top world powers and the United Nations, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the truce had taken effect and that violence had already fallen off.

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

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

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

In Aleppo, the head of the local branch of the powerful Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel force, Ahmad Sanada, said the group would respect the ceasefire.

"We are in favour of any initiative that relieves the suffering of civilians and avoids bloodshed and we will respect" the ceasefire, he told AFP.

Diplomats are hoping a nationwide ceasefire can underpin efforts to resolve Syria's war, which evolved from a crackdown on anti-government protests into a devastating multi-front conflict.

UN-backed peace talks in Geneva, which mediators hope can resume later this month, have so far made little headway, with the regime rejecting the opposition's demand that Assad step aside as part of a political transition.

The conflict led in part to the emergence of the jihadist Islamic State group, which has seized control of large areas of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

On Thursday, twin bombings in central Syria killed at least 10 civilians and wounded 40 more, the Observatory said, amid recent fighting in the area between IS fighters and regime troops.

State television reported that at least six people were killed and 28 seriously wounded in the suicide attack and car bombing in a square in Mukharram al-Fawqani in Homs province.

The area, controlled by the regime, is located between the cities of Homs and Palmyra, which was recaptured by the Syrian army from jihadists last month.

The blasts came just days after IS seized the nearby Shaer gas field, one of the biggest in Homs, in an attack that killed at least 16 regime troops.

There was no immediate claim of responsiblity for Thursday's attacks but suicide and car bombings are a favourite tactic of IS jihadists.

Western powers are hoping that ending the fighting in other parts of Syria will help focus efforts against IS, which a US-led coalition has been targeting with air strikes in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014.

Syrian officials have insisted they are targeting jihadists in Aleppo not covered by the ceasefire, in particular members of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, which is fighting in the city alongside other rebel groups.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Aleppo Wednesday, Syria's Deputy UN Ambassador Mounzer Mounzer defended the regime's actions in the city.

"What the Syrian government has been doing in the city of Aleppo is merely the fulfilment of its obligations to protect its citizens from terrorism," he told the council.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.