US, Russia agree to extend Syria truce to Aleppo

Aleppo has been the scene of the worst surge in fighting in recent days, wrecking the first major ceasefire of the five-year-old civil war

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The United States and Russia have agreed to work with Syria’s warring parties to extend a shaky truce to the city of Aleppo, the State Department said Wednesday.

“Since this went into effect today at 00:01 in Damascus, we have seen an overall decrease in violence in these areas,” spokesman Mark Toner said.

“To ensure this continues in a sustainable way, we are coordinating closely with Russia to finalize enhanced monitoring efforts of this renewed cessation,” he said.

Last week, Washington and Moscow agreed to monitor a truce between Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist forces and opposition in rebels in Latakia and Eastern Ghouta.

Syria’s army said Wednesday it will abide by the two-day ceasefire in Aleppo.

“A truce will be in place in Aleppo for 48 hours from 1:00 am on Thursday (2200 GMT on Wednesday),” a statement from Damascus’s army command said, according to the official SANA news agency and state television.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has scheduled a meeting on the escalating violence in Aleppo in response to an urgent request from Britain and France.

Britain’s UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft and France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre called for a briefing by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Diplomats said instead U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman will brief the council on Wednesday afternoon.

“Aleppo is burning ... and its civilians are being killed,” Rycroft told the Security Council after members adopted a resolution demanding an end to attacks on hospitals and medical workers in Syria and other war zones.

Delattre said Aleppo “has been under constant bombardment since 2012” and described the city as the “martyred center of the resistance” to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The UN’s envoy for Syria on Wednesday also made a plea for a halt in fighting in the second city of Aleppo, warning that failure to do so could lead to a “catastrophic” outcome.

“The alternative is truly quite catastrophic, because we could see 400,000 people moving towards the Turkish border,” Staffan de Mistura said after talks in Berlin with France and Germany’s foreign ministers.

Upsurge in violence

The Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday said an upsurge in violence by al-Nusra Front militants had thwarted plans to extend a truce to Aleppo the previous day, Russian news agencies reported.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested on Tuesday after meeting UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura that a deal covering Aleppo was close, saying Russian and US military personnel might announce a decision “in the coming hours”.

But such a local truce, also known as “a regime of calm,” never materialized.

“As a result of attacks by the Nusra Front on the Az Zagra quarters, and heavy shelling by Hellfire rocket systems of other residential areas which caused numerous deaths among civilians, the introduction of a ‘regime of calm’ in Aleppo was disrupted,” Russian news agencies quoted Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying on Wednesday.

The Russian military also said it has withdrawn about 30 aircraft from its base in Syria, including all of the Su-25 ground attack planes stationed there.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov gave no details Wednesday about how many aircraft remained, saying only that it was precisely the number necessary for fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front.

President Vladimir Putin in March ordered the withdrawal of most of Russia’s forces from Syria, without specifying how many aircraft would be pulled out or how many would remain.

Aleppo has been the scene of the worst surge in fighting in recent days, wrecking the first major ceasefire of the five-year-old civil war, sponsored by the United States and Russia, which had held since February.

Russia and US military officers were now holding “active consultations” with Syria’s government leadership and the “moderate opposition” on how to introduce a “regime of calm” in Aleppo as soon as possible, Konashenkov said.

The ceasefire in Aleppo and its suburbs was originally planned to last for 24 hours and to be later extended for a further two days, he was cited as saying.

Rebel fighters launched an assault in Aleppo on Tuesday, firing rockets on a hospital.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict, said rebel rockets had killed 19 people in government-held territory, including an unspecified number at the al-Dabit hospital.

‘fighting freeze’

At least 22 air strikes continued to pounded a key rebel bastion east of the Syrian capital on Wednesday after a local freeze on fighting expired overnight, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the suspected regime raids hit Eastern Ghouta as clashes with rebels erupted.

The fighting was centred on the town of Deir al-Assafir, where March air strikes by the regime killed 33 civilians, 12 of them children.

There was no immediate word on any casualties from the renewed fighting Wednesday, the Observatory said.

The municipal council in the flashpoint town of Douma confirmed that clashes and air strikes were rocking Eastern Ghouta, a belt of countryside and small towns east of the capital.

Moscow and Washington reached a deal last week on a temporary “freeze” in fighting in Eastern Ghouta and in the Mediterranean coastal province of Latakia.

The so-called “regime of silence” is meant to reinforce a broader truce brokered by the two world powers in February.

The halt in fighting was initially set for 24 hours in Eastern Ghouta but was extended twice, according to Syria’s armed forces, and finally expired on Tuesday night.

A military source in Damascus confirmed to AFP on Wednesday that it was not renewed a third time.

The fresh fighting does not bode well for efforts to agree a “regime of silence” in the battleground second city of Aleppo, ravaged by nearly two weeks of surging violence.

More than 270,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011.

(With Reuters, AFP and AP)