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Syrian rebels urged to split from ‘terrorists’

Profile image for By Sarah El Deeb and Nataliya Vasilyeva
By Sarah El Deeb and Nataliya Vasilyeva

BEIRUT — Russia said Wednesday separating Syrian rebels from “terrorists” is a “key task” to ensure the Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire continues to hold in Syria, where a relative calm has prevailed since the truce went into effect three days ago.

Russian Lt. Gen. Victor Poznikhir said rebels violated the truce 60 times since it came into force sunset Monday but added Moscow backed an extension of the cease-fire for another 48 hours. The Syrian government already has agreed to maintain the cease-fire until Sunday.

For their part, opposition forces said they recorded 28 various violations by government troops on Tuesday.

The cease-fire deal was reached over the weekend after marathon negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Underscoring the complexity of the new arrangement, the deal was not made public in its entirety even as it came into effect.

By evening Wednesday, there were no reports of major violations of the agreement, which calls on all parties to hold their fire, allowing only for airstrikes against the extremist Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

One of Syria’s most powerful factions, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s battlefield alliance with other insurgent groups makes it difficult for the United States to target them without the danger of inflicting harm on other opposition groups.

The agreement also is to allow for humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas, with the rebel-held part of the northern city of Aleppo as a priority.

However, some 20 trucks carrying U.N aid and destined for rebel-held eastern Aleppo remained in the customs area on the border with Turkey on Wednesday “because of lack of de facto assurances of safe passage by all parties,” Jens Laerke, deputy spokesman for the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Associated Press in an email.

The trucks are carrying mostly food items and are destined for the estimated 250,000 residents of eastern Aleppo. Details of who is to distribute the aid were still being worked out.

Separately, Turkey sent a pair of trucks to the Syrian border town of Jarablus to deliver food and children’s toys on the third day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Turkish ground forces joined Syrian rebels to expel Islamic State militants from the town last month.

In besieged rebel-held Aleppo, Mohammed Khandakani, a 28-year old attorney, said calm was prevailing in an area that had seen some of the heaviest violence in the days leading up to the cease-fire.

“The truce is holding. There is relative relief. It is an unexplainable feeling of safety,” he said. “But the anticipation and concern for the future leaves a lump in my throat. We are still living in a prison.”

Khandakani is a volunteer at a medical center in eastern Aleppo. Medical facilities in rebel-held areas have been frequent targets for government bombings.

In the lead-up to the cease-fire, 40 days of fighting in Aleppo killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian state media broadcast footage of the tourism and health ministers touring neighborhoods on the southern edge of Aleppo that were recently recaptured by the government from rebel groups. “Here is the line that separates civilization and backwardness, barbarity, the line between darkness and light,” said tourism minister Bishr Riyad Yazigi, speaking in the Ramouseh area of the divided city.

Meanwhile, Syrian state media reported violations of the cease-fire in central Homs, saying rebels fired mortar rounds Wednesday in a rural part of the province. A day earlier, the government said rebels had targeted the Castello road, the only remaining artery by which aid reaches the eastern, rebel section of Aleppo.

The chief of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said Wednesday there were no reported civilian casualties in the first 36 hours of the cease-fire.