Car bombing rocks Damascus as Syrian army says responding to rebel truce violations

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Fragile ceasefire

A handout picture released by SANA showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) attending prayers on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Damascus. (AFP)
A handout picture released by SANA showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) attending prayers on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Damascus. (AFP)
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Earlier on Friday, outbursts of fighting threatened to undermine a fragile ceasefire that took effect in Syria on Friday morning after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the main rebel force agreed to down arms for a four-day Muslim holiday.

But the violence was still at unusually low levels even though the ceasefire had “collapsed” in several regions of the country, said the Observatory.

And there were no indications from either the Assad regime or the main rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) that they were abandoning the truce.

“The ceasefire has collapsed in several regions of Syria but there is still less violence and fewer victims than usual,” Observatory director Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

He said fighting took place in various parts of the country, including in and around the capital Damascus, in the second city Aleppo, in the central city of Homs and near the Wadi Deif military base in the northwest.

On Thursday, at least 135 people were killed, the Observatory said, including 65 civilians, 41 soldiers and 29 rebels.

Regime forces and the FSA said Thursday they would follow U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s call for the temporary ceasefire, but both reserved the right to respond to any aggression.

Violence has plagued Syria during the 19-month conflict which monitors say has killed more than 35,000 people.

Piling up pressure on all sides

The international community has piled pressure on all sides to stand by the truce and a senior Arab League official said Friday it appeared to be holding.

Ahmed Ben Hilli, the League’s deputy secretary general, told AFP the truce was “being respected according to initial indications” and that it could be followed by a longer ceasefire and a proposal to deploy U.N. peacekeepers.

After clashes on Thursday night, the ceasefire took hold with morning prayers kicking off the Eid al-Adha feast at the end of the hajj pilgrimage, and state television showed Assad attending a Damascus mosque, smiling and chatting with worshippers.

The ceasefire was also tested as security forces opened fire at anti-regime protests that followed the prayers across the country.

The protests took place in Damascus and its suburbs, in Aleppo, in the northeast in Deir Ezzor and Raqa and at several towns in the southern Deraa province, according to activists and the Observatory.

At the town of Inkhel in Deraa, police used gunfire to disperse protesters, injuring three people, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, medics and lawyers on the ground for its information.

General Mustafa al-Sheikh of the FSA said the rebels considered the protest crackdown a violation of the ceasefire but were not planning to respond.

“Preventing demonstrations by opening fire is a violation of the ceasefire. But we are showing more restraint than the regime because for the moment we want to give the ceasefire a chance,” he told AFP by telephone from Turkey.

“We are not celebrating Eid here,” said a woman in a besieged Syrian town near the Turkish border, speaking above the noise of incessant gunfire and shelling. “No one is in the mood to celebrate. Everyone is just glad they are alive,” she told Reuters.

Her husband, a portly, bearded man in his 50s, said they and their five children had just returned to the town after nine days camped out on a farm with other families to escape clashes.

“We have no gifts for our children. We can’t even make phone
calls to our families,” he said, a young daughter on his lap.

Little Eid joy

In Aleppo, residents said they were taking little joy in the Eid holiday despite the lull in the fighting.

“Although there was no gunfire this morning, there was nothing that made it feel like Eid today,” said Hany, 35, a restaurant owner in the central district of Azizia.

The city’s streets were largely empty amid sporadic rebel attacks and with residents unable to move freely because of army checkpoints, an AFP correspondent said.

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful reform movement inspired by the Arab Spring but steadily militarized after being met with brutal state repression.

Most rebels, like the population, are Sunni Muslims in a country dominated by Assad’s minority regime of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The ceasefire was backed this week by the United Nations Security Council and a spokesman for U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that “the world is now watching” to ensure both sides stick by their commitment.

The United States also expressed hope the ceasefire will be respected.

“What we are hoping and expecting is that they will not just talk the talk of ceasefire, but that they will walk the walk, beginning with the regime,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The Syrian army said it would cease military operations from Friday morning to Monday, but warned it would react if “armed terrorist groups” carry out attacks or reinforce their positions, or if fighters cross into the country.

An April ceasefire announced by Brahimi’s predecessor, former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, failed to take hold.

Brahimi has stressed the importance of even a temporary lull in the fighting, saying: “If we succeed with this modest initiative, a longer ceasefire can be built” that would allow the launch of a political process.

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