Government officials and rebels reached a deal to ease a weeks-long blockade on a rebel-held town near the Syrian capital on Sunday, allowing food to reach civilians there for the first time in weeks, activists said.
The truce is the latest to be agreed in recent months between President Bashar Assad’s government and disparate rebel groups throughout the war-ravaged country.
It comes as the main Western-backed Syrian opposition began the second day of a two-day meeting in the Turkish capital Istanbul to decide whether they will attend a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva by the end of this year.
The Syrian National Coalition has demanded Assad step down in any transitional government as a condition for participation in the talks. Syrian officials say Assad will stay in his post at least until his term ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election. Coalition Spokesman Louay Safi said discussions were still ongoing.
“There are people who are concerned and worried that not enough preparation has taken place. And there are those who would like to make a decision but with some preparation,” he told reporters in Istanbul.
The Coalition is also expected to approve a list of cabinet of ministers presented by interim prime minister, Ahmad Toumeh, who was elected in September.
The Western-backed group has also called for goodwill measures from the Assad government, including lifting sieges on rebel-held areas. It wasn’t clear if the deal in Qudsaya was such a gesture, as neither rebels nor Syrian officials comment on such deals.
Activist group the Qudsaya Media Team confirmed the truce in a statement but gave few details. In an earlier November release, they said local markets ran out of food, and area’s poorest residents were going hungry. They could not be immediately reached for comment.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deal allowed food and flour to enter the town on the outskirts of Damascus, under blockade since October. The Observatory follows Syria through a network of activists on the ground.
All warring sides in Syria’s conflict have blockaded towns to squeeze out fighters, but the most affected have been poor people struggling to buy food, the elderly, the sick and children.
In recent weeks, a variety of Syrian mediators have been trying to ease blockades in several areas, with modest success.
Syria’s government is under pressure from the international community to allow food and medical aid into blockaded areas, particularly after reports emerged of widespread hunger in the blockaded Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh this year. It appears civilian elders have also pressured rebels to accept truces.
Meanwhile, fighting raged in the northern city of Aleppo over control of the airport, said the Observatory and an activist based in the Aleppo countryside. He spoke anonymously, fearing identification by government officials.
Rebels seized control of the military base housing troops that protect the city’s airport in February. But Assad-loyal troops took parts of it early Friday during an offensive, and fighting has raged since then. The rebels have been led by fighters from the Islamic Tawhid Brigade and the al-Qaida linked groups Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The activist and the Observatory said Shiite fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting alongside Syrian troops at the site, underscoring the importance of the battle. The government-held Aleppo International Airport, which has been closed due to fighting for almost a year, is one of the Syrian rebels’ major objectives.
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