Conflicting reports on if Syrian troops left key road

A ceasefire deal agreed by Washington and Moscow calls for the demilitarization of the Castello Road

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Russia on Thursday said Syrian regime forces have begun pulling back from around a key road into the ravaged city of Aleppo, freeing up the way for aid deliveries.

“The Syrian armed forces are fulfilling their obligations and have started a gradual withdrawal of military hardware and all personnel from the Castello Road, which will allow for the unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid to the eastern part of Aleppo,” senior Russian officer Vladimir Savchenko said in a televised briefing.

Savchenko said that rebel groups close to the crucial route did not appear to be carrying out a simultaneous pullback as agreed.

But a Pentagon spokesman later said he did not have “intelligence or facts” to indicate the Syrian army had begun withdrawing from Castello Road, a step needed to allow the delivery of humanitarian supplies to eastern Aleppo.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook made the remark in a news briefing shortly after a Russian general said the Syrian army had begun a staged withdrawal of troops and vehicles from the road. Eastern Aleppo is blockaded by government forces.

A ceasefire deal agreed by Washington and Moscow that went into force at sundown on Monday calls for the demilitarization of the Castello Road, and Moscow had earlier said the Syrian army would start pulling back at 0600 GMT on Thursday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said that government forces and rebel fighters remained on the road after that time and the army was not willing to pull back before opposition forces did so.

The truce deal has calmed much of the fighting in Syria but desperately needed humanitarian aid has not yet been allowed to reach civilian areas as planned under the agreement.

Twenty trucks loaded with aid for eastern Aleppo on Thursday crossed into a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria, high-level UN official Jan Egeland said.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the aid could not move into Syria’s second city before the Castello Road supply route had been fully secured.

Russia - which is flying a bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad - insists that Syrian regime forces are fully respecting the truce, but US-backed rebels are violating it.

“The cessation of hostilities is not being fulfilled by the opposition units controlled by the US. Shelling continues, people are dying and houses are being destroyed,” senior commander Viktor Poznikhir said.

If the truce holds then Russia and the United States could start coordinating strikes against militants. But Moscow insists that Washington is failing to get rebels to separate on the ground from radical militants.

On Thursday Russia’s ambassador to the UN said his country wanted the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution endorsing the deal hammered out between Moscow and Washington to halt fighting in Syria and jointly target Islamist rebels, its ambassador said Thursday.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said there were discussions at the United Nations on the proposed resolution that could be adopted on Wednesday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Syria.

“We are working on it,” Churkin told reporters. “I think we need to adopt it on the 21st.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will attend the high-level council meeting, held on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly meeting.

Churkin said the resolution would provide “endorsement of the agreement” reached last week that allowed a ceasefire to go into effect on Monday, paving the way to aid deliveries and a possible resumption of peace talks.

The cessation of hostilities was holding on Thursday, but another key provision of the agreement - the delivery of aid to besieged areas - had yet to be implemented.

Some 20 trucks loaded with aid to be delivered to the battleground city of Aleppo remained in a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria on Thursday, awaiting a green light from Damascus to begin their journey.

Addressing the council, US Ambassador Samantha Power said that the deal “is not an agreement based on trust and promises.”

“It is an agreement based on reciprocal actions, halting attacks and allowing for deliveries of assistance,” Power said.

Under the deal, the United States and Russia will set up a joint implementation center to cooperate in the targeting of Islamist rebels while President Bashar al-Assad’s government grounds its planes and helicopters, she added.

“The regime would no longer be able to use the excuse that it is targeting (the Al-Qaeda-linked) Al-Nusra in order to go after its own people,” she said.

Ahead of the council meeting on Syria, there were discussions about holding a meeting of the International Syria Support Group, made up of some 20 countries backing the peace process in Syria, possibly as early as Monday.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria where UN peace efforts have failed to unite the many players in the conflict behind a political settlement.

(With AFP and Reuters)