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UN eyes Syria aid deliveries as fragile ceasefire continues

The UN prepared to deliver aid to thousands of besieged civilians in Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 February, 2016

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The United Nations is preparing to take advantage of Syria's first major truce in five years to deliver aid to thousands of besieged civilians.

The United Nations prepared on Monday to deliver aid to thousands of besieged civilians in Syria as a fragile ceasefire entered its third day largely intact despite accusations of violations.

UN humanitarian coordinator Yacoub al-Hillo said the world body hoped to take advantage of the first major truce in five years of conflict to distribute supplies to an extra 154,000 people living in besieged areas over the next five days.

The UN estimates more than 480,000 Syrians live in areas besieged by government forces, rebels or militants of the Islamic State group (IS) or al-Qaeda.

An convoy carrying medical supplies and blankets was due to head to the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham, surrounded by regime forces south of Damascus, on Monday, a UN source told AFP.  

It would be the first aid delivery since the ceasefire began on Saturday. 

The UN human rights chief said thousands risk starvation to death in besieged areas as the warring sides showed no respect for the rules of war.

"The deliberate starvation of people is unequivocally forbidden as a weapon of warfare. By extension, so are sieges," Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said on Monday.

The flow of aid to areas long denied it would also create a more favourable backdrop for peace talks that collapsed in acrimony in early February. 

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura aims to relaunch negotiations on 7 March if the ceasefire lasts and more aid is delivered.

The deliberate starvation of people is unequivocally forbidden as a weapon of warfare. By extension, so are sieges.
- Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein

The main opposition grouping described the ceasefire on Sunday as "positive" but lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations and foreign governments about breaches.

"We have violations here and there, but in general it is a lot better than before and people are comfortable," said Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee.

Meslet said the opposition would like to see the truce "last forever" and that it was the "responsibility of the United States to stop any violations".

'We went out and played'

An HNC letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime and its allies of committing two dozen truce violations that had killed 29 people and wounded dozens.

The HNC has said it has been kept in the dark about the truce's monitoring mechanism.

The ceasefire does not apply to territory held by IS and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

Last week, IS militants cut the government's sole supply route to territory it holds in and around second city Aleppo.

After several days of deadly clashes, the army succeeded in reopening it on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least 26 pro-government fighters and 14 IS militants were killed in the fighting around the town of Khanasser, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

An HNC letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime and its allies of committing two dozen truce violations that had killed 29 people and wounded dozens.

Russia, which has waged a five-month bombing campaign to support President Bashar al-Assad, accused "moderate" rebels and militant of nine ceasefire violations.

But "on the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented," Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko, head of Moscow's coordination centre in Syria, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that the main measures for putting a stop to hostilities were now in place.

"We knew ahead of time that this would not be easy," he told reporters.

In Aleppo, the Observatory reported some rebel rocket fire on government-held neighbourhoods early on Monday but no casualties.

Children strolled to schools in the city without hugging walls for fear of air strikes, an AFP correspondent reported.

"Our teachers used to forbid us from going out to the school yard because of the air strikes but today we went out and played," said Ranim, a 10-year-old pupil at a primary school in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Qasr.

'Inevitable' setbacks

The Observatory reported nine Russian air strikes on a town in the central province of Hama early on Monday but had no immediate word on any casualties.

It said seven civilians were killed in Russian strikes on Sunday on a town in Aleppo province where al-Nusra has a presence.

Washington urged patience from all sides to give the truce a chance to firm up.

"Setbacks are inevitable," a senior US administration official said.

"Even under the best of circumstances, we don't expect the violence to end immediately. In fact, we are certain that there will continue to be fighting, in part because of organisations like ISIL (Islamic State) and al-Nusra."

There has been no let-up in the US-led air campaign against IS since the truce went into effect.

The coalition said that on Sunday it carried out 12 strikes against the militants in Syria, four of them around the town of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border where IS has been attempting to regain territory from US-backed Kurdish forces.

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