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Saturday, February 27, 2016, 18:07

Ceasefire goes into effect across Syria

By Agencies

Ceasefire goes into effect across Syria
Syrian children walk between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria, Feb 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT — A ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect across Syria on Saturday, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country's devastating conflict, but the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, were excluded.

The ceasefire aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition back to the negotiating table in Geneva for talks on a political transition. The UN's envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced that peace talks would resume on March 7 if the cessation of hostilities "largely holds."

If it does, it would be the first time international negotiations have brought any degree of quiet in Syria's five-year civil war. But success requires adherence by multiple armed factions — and the truce is made more fragile because it allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, which could easily re-ignite broader warfare.

The Syrian government and the opposition, including nearly 100 rebel groups, have said they will abide by the ceasefire despite serious skepticism about chances for success.

Just hours after the ceasefire came into effect, Syrian rebels in the country's northwest said they came under attack from government ground forces at 4 am on Saturday in what they called a breach of the cessation of hostilities plan.

Three fighters from the rebel Second Coastal Division were killed while repelling the attack in the Jabal Turkman area near the Turkish border in Latakia province, Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the affiliated First Coastal Division, told Reuters.

The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment. The Syrian government has said it will respect the agreement drawn up by Russia and the United States, but that it will continue to fight the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State which are not covered by the deal.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva after the truce took hold at midnight, de Mistura said initial reports indicated that within minutes both Damascus and the nearby rebel-held town of Daraya suddenly "had calmed down." He said there was a report of one "incident" that his team was investigating but did not give details.

Ceasefire goes into effect across Syria
Destroyed buildings are seen in the old city of Homs, Syria, Feb 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Opposition activists on the ground also reported early adherence to the truce.

Mazen al-Shami, an activist near Damascus, said an opposition-held eastern suburb of the capital known as Eastern Ghouta was "quiet for the first time in years." The Ghouta region, which includes the sprawling suburb of Douma, has been the scene of intense fighting during Syria's conflict.

An Associated Press crew in Damascus said the sounds of explosions stopped three minutes before midnight. An Aleppo-based opposition media collective, Aleppo24, said Russian warplanes left Aleppo skies at 12:19 am.

Opposition activist Mohammed al-Sibai, who is based in the central province of Homs, told the AP that the ceasefire was violated 15 minutes after it went into effect in the town of Talbiseh, which was being subjected to shelling by government artillery based around the town. However, he said things later quieted down.

Significantly, there were no immediate reports of any airstrikes.

On Friday, hours before the ceasefire came into effect, warplanes unleashed airstrikes against rebel-held positions in the suburbs of the Syrian capital and near the northern city of Aleppo.

The last barrages came as the main Syrian opposition and rebel umbrella group said dozens of factions — 97 groups in all — had agreed to abide by the truce. The High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, said a military committee has been formed to follow up on adherence.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the warplanes in Friday's strikes were believed to be Russian.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country will keep hitting "terrorist organizations" in Syria even after the truce is implemented.

Senior armed forces official Sergei Rudskoi said later on Saturday that Russia had suspended air strikes in a "green zone" in Syria in line with a cessation of hostilities plan.

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