Fighting eases as Russian deal for safe zones takes effect

Syria fighting eases as Russian deal takes effect

Fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces eased on Saturday as a Russian-led effort to shore up a ceasefire took effect, although battles continued on important frontlines near Hama and Damascus, rebels and a war monitor said, Reuters reported.

The deal to create “de-escalation” zones in the major areas of conflict in western Syria took effect at midnight. The initiative was proposed by Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, with the support of Turkey, which backs the opposition. Iran, Assad’s other major ally, also backed it, Reuters added.

Political and armed opposition groups have rejected the proposal, saying Russia has been unwilling or unable to get Assad and his Iranian-backed militia allies to respect past ceasefires. The Syrian government said it backed the proposal but said it would continue to fight what it called terrorist groups across the country, Reuters indicated.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been a reduction in fighting across Syria since the deal came into force, but warned it was too early to say whether it would last,

“The reduction in violence must be clear and lasting,” Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.

A rebel commander said the general level of violence was reduced, but added: “Regime attempts (to advance) in the Hama countryside continue.”

With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian government has gained the military upper hand in the six-year conflict. The wide array of rebel groups include some supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

The Observatory said it had not recorded any deaths as a result of fighting in the four zones since midnight, but there had been some violations.

Breaches were seen mainly in northern Hama province, where Syrian government and allied forces have taken territory from rebels in recent weeks.

Fighter jets fired at the rebel-held village of al-Zalakiyat and nearby positions in the northern Hama countryside, where the combatants exchanged shelling, the Britain-based war monitoring group said.

The Observatory said government and allied forces had managed to take a number of points in al-Zalakiyat, and rebel forces had returned fire and also shelled the government-held town of Halfiya.

The Observatory said government forces shelled and bombed the nearby town of Latamneh and surrounding areas. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian army.

Mohammed Rasheed, a spokesman for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group based in Hama, confirmed that fighting had broken out after midnight.

Rasheed said rebel-held Idlib province to the north of Hama was almost completely quiet, but the attacks, which included barrel bombs, were focused on the northern Hama frontline area.

“The bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before,” he told Reuters.

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