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Syria truce strained on eve of fresh peace talks

12 April 2016, 21:01

Beirut - Syria's landmark ceasefire was threatening to fall apart on Tuesday amid a surge of fighting, especially in northern Aleppo province, just as peace talks were set to resume in Geneva.

Fresh concerns about the ceasefire were voiced by Iran, where the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was holding talks with the key backer of President Bashar Assad.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told de Mistura that the recent increase in fighting was "disturbing and may interfere with the political process".

"We explained to Mr de Mistura our concerns after an increase in recent days of military action from irresponsible armed groups and the increase in violations of the ceasefire," Iranian state television quoted Abdollahian as saying.

Washington had raised similar worries about the ceasefire ahead of the talks due to start on Wednesday, which de Mistura has described as "crucially important".

The round of talks is the second since Assad's regime and rebel forces agreed to the partial truce brokered by Moscow and Washington, which has largely held since February 27.

The ceasefire has raised hopes for a resolution to the five-year conflict, which has devastated the country and left more than 270 000 dead.

But concern has been growing that a recent rise in violence focused mainly in Aleppo province is putting intense strain on the truce.

Pro-government forces were on Tuesday pressing an advance against the town of Al-Eis, held by al-Qaeda's local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, and allied rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

'Afraid of more air strikes'

Jihadists like those from Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group are excluded from the ceasefire. But in some areas, Al-Nusra fighters are allied with rebel forces meant to be covered by the truce.

Regime warplanes have also carried out "unprecedented" air strikes in recent days on the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo city, according to the Observatory, which relies on a broad network of sources inside Syria.

"I didn't send my child to school today because I was afraid of more air strikes like in the past two days," said Ismail, a 30-year-old Aleppo resident.

Russian-backed regime forces pressed a similar offensive around Aleppo city during a previous failed round of peace talks in January.

Western powers blamed the government's military escalation for the breakdown of those talks.

Al-Nusra and allied rebel groups were meanwhile pushing their own offensive on the town of Khan Touman near Aleppo city, the Observatory said.

Washington on Monday expressed worries that an assault against Al-Nusra in Aleppo may spread to moderate rebel factions, which could cause the truce to collapse and derail peace efforts.

"We are concerned about plans to attack and seize ... Aleppo when there are clearly opposition groups there that are part of the cessation of hostilities," State Department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters.

Human Rights Watch also warned on Tuesday that continued indiscriminate attacks on civilians could cause the truce to break down.

It said recent attacks by rebel groups on Kurdish-majority neighbourhoods in Aleppo city and by government forces east of Damascus "threaten to derail the 'cessation of hostilities'."

"A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much-needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks," Nadim Houry, HRW's deputy Middle East director, said in a statement.

The ceasefire brought relative calm to swathes of northern and central Syria, allowing increased humanitarian aid deliveries and a significant drop in daily deaths.

Syria's government and opposition will resume indirect peace negotiations on Wednesday in Geneva, with the fate of Assad still a major stumbling block.

Russian helicopter crashes

The High Negotiations Committee, which represents Syria's main opposition groups, was due to arrive in Switzerland on Tuesday afternoon.

The UN's de Mistura, who will host the talks, said the negotiations will focus on aspects of a peace roadmap calling for a transitional government, a new constitution and eventual elections.

Despite the talks, Syria's regime will be going ahead on Wednesday with parliamentary elections taking place in government-controlled areas.

The UN does not recognise the vote and it has been dismissed by Assad's Syrian and foreign opponents as illegitimate.

Moscow launched a wave of air strikes in support of the regime last September, though last month Russia ordered the bulk of its forces to withdraw.

Moscow's defence ministry said two Russian military pilots were killed in a helicopter crash near the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday.

It said the Mi-28 attack helicopter "was not fired at" and that the bodies were transported to the Hmeimim air base in northwest Syria.



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