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Damascus accused of obstructing aid amid shaky ceasefire

Activists hope the truce will allow aid to be distributed to 154,000 besieged people [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 March, 2016

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Aid workers have made the first delivery of desperately needed assistance since the start of Syria's fragile ceasefire, as international task force meets in a bid to bolster the truce.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of obstructing deliveries of humanitarian aid in Syria, as an international task force meets to try to bolster the truce.

Kerry welcomed the first delivery of desperately needed assistance delivered by aid workers on Monday. But he criticised Syrian troops and officials for blocking some deliveries and stealing from others.

The government should "try to show some measure of decency," Kerry said, adding, "if that is even possible."

His comments come as the task force co-chaired by Moscow and Washington held talks in Geneva to evaluate allegations of a range of ceasefire breaches.

At the weekend, key regime backer Russia traded accusations with the main opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), over truce violations.

Russia's Defence Ministry said the ceasefire has been violated 15 times in the past 24 hours.

The ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that most of the violations were recorded around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Latakia.

 
The ceasefire is 'being observed' [Emad Hajjaj/The New Arab]

Syrian opposition groups claimed Russia and Damascus violated the ceasefire 26 times in the first three days.

The HNC reported two alleged violations by regime forces in Daraa, southern Syria, and two by Russian warplanes in the central province of Hama.

However, "the ceasefire between government troops and opposition forces is on the whole being observed", said General Sergei Kuralenko, tasked with monitoring the truce for Moscow, quoted in a Kremlin defence ministry statement.

The White House said it was not surprised by reports the ceasefire had been breached, but indicated it was too early to call the suspension of hostilities a failure.

"We did anticipate that there would be reports of violations and that we would encounter some potholes on the road to implementing this successfully," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said there had been some incidents but the ceasefire was generally holding.

 

Timeline of Syrian ceasefire

Saturday, February 27
- The unprecedented cessation of hostilities begins at 0000 local time (2200 GMT on Friday).

- Russia says it will suspend for one day its airstrikes in Syria to support the agreement and avoid "bombing mistakes".

- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and militants report a tense calm in the central regions around Homs and Hama, in Damascus and around Aleppo in the north. No airstrikes are signalled against rebel regions.

- One exception is near Abbasid Square in Damascus, where about a dozen shells hit an area disputed for the past three years by government troops and rebels.

- A Geneva-based international working group issues a positive evaluation of the situation. Although a few incidents are noted, the UN estimates they have not torpedoed the ceasefire.

Sunday, February 28
- Aircraft attack six locations in Aleppo province and one in Hama, the Syrian Observatory says. The director of a pro-rebel press agency says the aircraft were Russian.

- Russian Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko accuses rebels of violating the ceasefire nine times, but adds: "On the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented."

- The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, which represents most of the opposition groups, says the ceasefire has been broken two dozen times by Syria's government and its allies, leaving 29 dead.

- Saudi Arabia directly accuses President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Russia of "ceasefire violations".

- The UN says it will distribute supplies to an extra 154,000 people in besieged areas over the next five days.

Monday, February 29
- The Observatory says that the death toll in areas outside extremist control has fallen sharply since the ceasefire began, with 40 people killed on the first two days in areas where IS is not present, against 144 on Friday.

- Ten airstrikes hit part of the eastern town of Deir Ezzor controlled by IS.

- Turkey shells IS positions in northern Aleppo province in coordination with the US-led international anti-extremist coalition.

- The UN human rights chief warns that thousands could die from starvation because of sieges that have affected more than 480,000 people. The Red Crescent begins delivering UN-provided hygiene supplies to the rebel-held town of Moadamiyet al-Sham southwest of Damascus.

- The international task force was to meet in Geneva to shore up the ceasefire, after UN chief Ban Ki-moon tells media that "by and large the cessation of hostilities is holding even though we have experienced some incidents".

Thousands could die of starvation

But in an encouraging sign, aid workers began aid delivery on Monday, the first since the deal came into effect.

A convoy of 20 trucks carrying blankets and hygiene supplies entered rebel-held Moadamiyet al-Sham, a town encircled by government forces.

Another 31 trucks were set to follow later.

UN humanitarian coordinator Yacoub El Hillo said he hoped the relative calm would allow aid to be distributed to 154,000 besieged people over the next five days.

The UN's food agency said "unprecedented" pledges meant it could fully fund food aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt throughout the year.

Pressure was building to relieve civilians under siege after the UN's human rights chief said "thousands of people risk starving to death".

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

The flow of much-needed assistance could also create a more favourable backdrop for peace talks that collapsed in acrimony in early February.

UN envoy Steffan de Mistura aims to relaunch negotiations on March 9 if the ceasefire lasts and more aid is delivered.

Initially planned for March 7, the envoy announced the two-day postponement on Tuesday.

Ceasefire breaches

The opposition's HNC on Sunday described the ceasefire 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 spokesman Salem al-Meslet.

An HNC letter to Ban accused the Syrian regime and its allies of committing two dozen truce violations that had killed 29 people.

The ceasefire does not apply to territory held by the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda franchise the Nusra Front, leading to fears that opposition-held areas would be targeted under the pretext of "fighting terrorism".

Turkish armed forces on Monday fired 50 to 60 shells on IS positions in Aleppo province, local media reported.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the truce was "in place in one third of Syria, not all over".

"Now there's no ceasefire all over Syria. Attacks are unfortunately continuing here and there."

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

In Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported some rebel rocket fire on government-held neighbourhoods but no casualties.

The Observatory reported nine Russian airstrikes on a town in the central province of Hama but had no immediate word on casualties.

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

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter Monday stressed there had been no let-up in the US-led air campaign against IS since the truce took effect.

"There's certainly no cessation of hostilities there," he said.

The coalition said on Sunday it carried out 12 airstrikes against extremist groups in Syria.

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