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Main Syrian frontlines 'calm' as Russia halts air strikes for one day

Russian military announces 24-hour pause to prevent 'bombing mistakes' as ceasefire takes effect despite reports of sporadic shelling and gunfire
A rebel fighter comes out of a frontline hiding position in the Ghouta district of eastern Damascus on 26 February (AA)

Frontlines between pro-government forces and opposition rebels in Syria were reported to be mostly quiet on Saturday after a UN-backed partial ceasefire came into effect.

The accord, negotiated between the US and Russia, marked the first formal pause in fighting since Syria's civil war began almost five years ago. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the ceasefire and discussed ways of supporting it through cooperation between their militaries, Russia's foreign ministry said on Saturday.

In a phone call, they welcomed "the implementation of the ceasefire in Syria," the ministry said in a statement. The two also discussed the possible resumption of peace negotiations within the framework of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), reports said.

Under the agreement, fighting should mostly stop so that aid can reach civilians and negotiations can seek an end to the war that has killed more than 250,000 people and left 11 million homeless, Reuters reported.

Still, doubts persist about how long the ceasefire will hold, or how widely it will be implemented, and fierce fighting was reported overnight between Islamic State (IS) group militants and YPG Kurdish fighters near the Turkish border, as well as sporadic shelling and gunfire allegedly perpetrated by both pro-government forces and rebels elsewhere.

The agreement excludes the Islamic State (IS) group and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which are both considered terrorist organisations by the UN.

The Syrian government and Russia have said they will not relent in their military campaign against "terrorists," while the leader of the Nusra Front on Friday called on rebels to step up their efforts against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Reports from the eastern suburbs of Damascus and the devastated northern city of Aleppo, the focus of a sustained government offensive and Russian air strikes in recent weeks, suggested that areas of heavy fighting were mostly quiet.

In Damascus, Syria's SANA state news agency said that rebels in eastern districts had shelled residential areas, although there were no reports of casualties.

In a statement, the Syrian army said it "called on the residents of these neighbourhoods to put pressure on this terrorist minority so they do not end efforts to bring security and stability".

SANA also said that a rocket attack by IS in Deir Ezzor had killed three children, and that IS suicide bombers had killed six people in Hama.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said incidents of sporadic gunfire had been reported in western Syria but the ceasefire was mostly being respected.

"In Damascus and its countryside ... for the first time in years, calm prevails," said Rami Abdul Rahman, the Observatory's director.

"In Latakia, calm, and at the Hmeimim air base there is no plane activity," he said, referring an airbase used by Russia to mount air strikes against opposition forces.

UN pushes for peace talks

Russia's millitary said on Saturday that it had halted all bombing activities over Syria for one day to prevent "bombing mistakes," in accordance with the ceasefire agreement.

"On February 27, sorties of the Russian aviation in Syria including long-range aviation, are not [being] carried out," Sergei Rudskoi, a senior representative of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, told reporters.

He said it was being done to rule out "any possible bombing mistakes" and in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution.

International efforts to end the war hinge on the ceasefire holding, with Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, telling reporters on Friday that peace talks would resume on 7 March if all sides stick to the agreement and allow aid to be delivered to civilians.

A UN task force was meeting behind closed doors in Geneva, Switzerland, on Saturday to discuss monitoring the ceasefire and dealing with violations.

Moscow and Washington, co-chairs of the task force, have set up rival offices to oversee the truce along with a UN operation centre and would be the first to deal with any infractions.

De Mistura said it was important that any incidents are "quickly brought under control" and a military response should be the "last resort".

Fighting broke out overnight around the Kurdish-controlled northern city of Tal Abyad close to the Turkish border with two groups of IS fighters attacking the city and the nearby town of Silok, according to Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) media centre.

The YPG said in a statement that its fighters had been attacked by IS in about 15 locations late on Friday night and that clashes were continuing.

The Observatory said at least 45 IS fighters, 20 Kurdish fighters and two civilians had been killed, while the US had launched at least 10 air strikes in support of the Kurdish forces.

'Maybe we can go home'

Elsewhere, residents and fighters in Aleppo and Damascus reported a rare night of calm.

"I can't hide the fact that I'm happy the war has stopped, even for a few minutes," Abdel Rahman Issa, a 24-year-old Syrian army soldier, told the AFP news agency from a battlefield on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

"If it continues like this, maybe we can go home."

"Honestly, I was surprised that the calm lasted through the night," said Ammar al-Rai, a 22-year-old medical student in Damascus.

"I think this is the first time we've woken up without the sound of shelling."

In the north, a rebel fighter near Aleppo told the Reuters news agency that pro-government forces had briefly shelled a village under the control of Free Syrian Army-aligned fighters.

He said the situation was now calmer but that many opposition fighters expected the government to break the ceasefire by claiming to attack the Nusra Front, which has fought alongside and collaborated with other rebel groups.

Fierce clashes elsewhere had continued right up to the start of the ceasefire, while Russian air strikes continued to pound rebel targets right through Friday.

At least 40 pro-government fighters and 18 rebels were reported killed in fighting and air strikes in Latakia province, and six people were killed in an air strike in western Aleppo province.

Air strikes were also reported in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in Douma, northeast of the capital.

The intensified attacks prompted Turkey, a key supporter of opposition forces, to express worries over the viability of the ceasefire.

"We are seriously concerned over the future of the ceasefire because of the continuing Russian air raids and ground attacks by forces of Assad," presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters in Ankara.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington had received assurances from Moscow that it would not bomb the "moderate opposition" after the truce.

Almost 100 rebel factions have pledged to respect the ceasefire agreement for two weeks, the High Negotiations Committee, an opposition umbrella group, said on Friday, with concurrence with the deal supposedly offering those groups protection from attack. 

But analysts have cautioned whether the ceasefire can actually cease hostilites.

“We can’t really tell how long the agreement will hold or whether it might pave the way to a permanent solution,” A Kadir Yildirim, a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

“Ultimately, how long-lasting the agreement will prove depends on long-term negotiations on the ground,” he added.