Saudi: Russia, Assad regime violated truce

Both the Syrian opposition and Russia said violations were taking place but continue on implementing the fragile truce

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Saudi Arabia on Sunday accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its ally Russia of “ceasefire violations” in Syria.

“There are violations to the ceasefire from Russian and (Syrian) regime aircraft,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh. “We are discussing this with (the 17-nation) Syria Support Group,” co-chaired by Russia and the United States, said Jubeir.


The truce in Syria, meanwhile, is mostly holding despite of violations including war planes attacking six towns in the northern Aleppo province early on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, a day after a cessation of hostilities agreement took effect.

The Syrian opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies of breaching the truce 15 times Saturday but said on Sunday that it will stick to the cessation of hostilities.

A spokesman for the High National Committee (HNC) said: “Yesterday was the first day people can really go out and walk in the streets.”

But he said HNC will send letters to UN and foreign ministers to complain about the Russian airstrikes around Aleppo and attacks by Hezbollah in Zabadani.

The spokesman also said HNC has asked the US for information about how monitoring of truce works but has yet to receive any answer.

Meanwhile, the Russian military also said on Sunday that the fragile ceasefire had been breached nine times over the past 24 hours but the truce was mostly holding.

“Over the past 24 hours, nine instances of violations of cessation of hostilities have been uncovered,” Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko, head of the country’s coordination center in Syria, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. “On the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented.”

He said the violations included shelling in the province of Latakia.

Earlier, the Observatory which monitors the conflict said the identity of the jets was not clear

"We do not know which planes carried out the strikes and also we are not sure if this is considered a breach to the truce because it is not clear if these towns are included in the truce," the Observatory's director Rami Abdulrahman said.

Syria's state media did not mention the strikes. Russia's defence ministry declined to comment.

The cessation of hostilities, agreed as part of a U.S. and Russian plan, does not cover assaults on militants from ISIS or the Nusra Front - an al-Qaeda affiliate that has called for an escalation of attacks on Friday.

Abdulrahman said some of the towns which were attacked, including Daret Azza, were controlled by Nusra Front and other Islamist groups.

Other attacks hit the villages and towns of Qabtan al-Jabal, Andan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma'aret al-Arteek, the Observatory said, all in the west of the province where insurgents from the Free Syrian Army, who are covered by the truce, have operated.

Two videos sent by a rebel commander to Reuters shows a strike in another town, Harbnafseh, at 6.30 a.m. (0430 GMT) and another at 07:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) according to the voice in the video. The footage shows plumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Russia said on Saturday that it would suspend all flights over Syria for one day to ensure no targets covered by the truce were hit by mistake.

Guns had mostly fell silent in Syria and Russian air raids stopped on Saturday, the first day of a cessation of hostilities that the United Nations has described as the best hope for peace in five years of civil war.

Under the U.S.-Russian accord accepted by President Bashar al-Assad's government and many of his foes, fighting should cease so aid can reach civilians and talks can open to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and made 11 million homeless.

Russia, which says it intends to continue strikes against areas held by Islamist fighters that are not covered by the truce, said it would suspend all flights over Syria for the first day to ensure no wrong targets were hit by mistake.

The truce seemed largely to be holding, though rebels reported what they described as occasional government violations, and one commander warned that unchecked, the breaches could lead to the agreement's collapse.

Jaish al-Nasr, a group affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which has backed the truce, said government forces had fired mortars, rockets and machine guns in Hama province and that warplanes had been constantly present in the sky.

"Compared to the previous days it is nothing, but we consider that they broke the truce," Mohamed Rasheed, head of the group's media office, told Reuters.

Another FSA-affiliated group, Alwiyat Seif al Sham, said two of its fighters had been killed and four more wounded when government tanks shelled them in rural areas west of Damascus.

A Syrian military source denied the army was violating the truce agreement. State media described rocket attacks near Damascus and several deadly attacks by ISIS. But overall the level of violence was far reduced.

"Let's pray that this works because frankly this is the best opportunity we can imagine the Syrian people has had for the last five years in order to see something better and hopefully something related to peace," U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at a midnight news conference in Geneva.

"I think that the feeling that we have today is that the situation is very different but of course every day has to be monitored," he said.

The agreement is the first of its kind to be attempted in four years and, if it holds, would be the most successful truce of the war so far.

De Mistura said he intends to restart peace talks on March 7, provided the halt in fighting largely holds.

But there are weak spots in a fragile deal which has not been directly signed by the Syrian warring parties and is less binding than a formal ceasefire.

Importantly, it does not cover powerful jihadist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria. ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb in Hama province. Nusra has called for redoubled attacks.

Moscow and Damascus say they will continue to fight them, and other rebels say they fear this stance may be used to justify attacks against them too.

The truce is the culmination of new diplomatic efforts that reflect a battlefield dramatically changed since Russia joined the war in September with air strikes to prop up Assad. Moscow's intervention effectively destroyed the hope his enemies have maintained for five years -- encouraged by Arab and Western states -- to topple him by force.

Israel on Sunday also hailed the truce but warned against Iran ‘aggression.’

Reports of violence

Like several other rebel figures contacted by Reuters, Fares Bayoush, head of the Fursan al-Haqq rebel group which fights under the FSA banner, said front lines were far quieter. But he added that violations were taking place and if continued could lead to the "collapse of the agreement".

In early reports of violence, a Syrian rebel group in the northwest said three of its fighters had been killed while repelling an attack from government ground forces a few hours after the plan came into effect.

Syria's state media said at least six people were killed and several wounded in two suicide bomb attacks east of Hama city, including the car bomb claimed by ISIS. Three children were killed and 12 wounded in an unspecified ISIS attack in Joura neighborhood in Deir al-Zor province.

Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the FSA First Coastal Division in Latakia province said government helicopters had dropped eight "barrel bombs" on the area in the early afternoon. Assad's opponents have long accused the government of using such bombs -- oil drums packed with explosives -- to cause indiscriminate damage in rebel-held areas, which Damascus denies.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said government forces dropped five barrel bombs on the village on Najiya in Idlib province. The village is controlled by several groups including Nusra Front.

Nusra Front fighters pulled out of residential areas in several towns they run in Idlib province on Saturday to avoid being blamed by local people for civilian casualties if the areas are bombed by Russia, residents and rebel sources said.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said ISIS fighters had attacked Tel Abyad, a town near the Turkish border, prompting air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition to try to drive them back.

Russia's Defence Ministry said it would suspend air strikes in a "green zone" -- defined as those parts of Syria held by groups that have accepted the cessation of hostilities -- and make no flights at all on Saturday.

"Given the entry into force of the U.N. Security Council resolution that supports the Russian-American agreements on a ceasefire, and to avoid any possible mistakes when carrying out strikes, Russian military planes, including long-range aviation, are not carrying out any flights over Syrian territory on Feb. 27," the ministry said.

Sergei Rudskoi, a lieutenant-general in the Russian air force, told a news briefing that Moscow had sent the United States a list of 6,111 fighters who had agreed to the ceasefire deal and 74 populated areas which should not be bombed.

A Syrian rebel group denied on Sunday state media reports that armed groups had fired dozens of mortar rounds into rural areas of the country’s coastal Latakia province.

(With Reuters)

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