Friday 13 December 2019

Bombs and bullets still fly despite Syrian ceasefire

Most frontlines 'calm' but war on Isil continues as terror group carries out attacks hours after fragile truce takes hold

THE HEAVY ARMOUR: A Syrian government tank in an operation against Isil near Aleppo. Photo: Georges Ourfalian/Getty
THE HEAVY ARMOUR: A Syrian government tank in an operation against Isil near Aleppo. Photo: Georges Ourfalian/Getty

Mariam Karouny in Beirut

A US and Russia-brokered ceasefire yesterday brought relative calm to parts of Syria for the first time in years, but the war against Islamic State continued as the extremist group stormed a northern border town in a surprise attack.

Isil, which is not a party to the ceasefire, launched several attacks after the truce went into effect, including a brazen offensive on the northern town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey and two car bombs in central Syria that were blamed on Isil.

The ceasefire went into effect across Syria at midnight last Friday, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country's devastating conflict that has killed 250,000 people, wounded a million and created Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II.

In addition to Isil, the truce does not include al-Qaeda's branch in Syria -the Nusra Front - which is also considered a terrorist organisation by the United Nations.

A top military official in Moscow said Russia has grounded its warplanes in Syria to help secure the ceasefire.

Lt Gen Sergei Rudskoi, of the General Staff of Russia's military, said that while Russia would continue air strikes against Isil and Nusra Front, Moscow is keeping its aircraft on the ground for now "to avoid any possible mistakes".

He added that 17 opposition units had contacted the Russian military to adhere to the truce and that the Russian military had established hotlines to exchange information with the US military in order to help monitor the ceasefire and quickly respond to any conflict situations.

The US has provided the Russian defence ministry with similar maps and its own list of opposition units, which have agreed to respect the ceasefire.

Lt Gen Rudskoi said that, according to the US-Russian agreements, a rebel unit that accidentally comes under attack should contact Russian or US representatives who would quickly resolve the incident.

A co-ordination centre at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, where Russian warplanes are based, has 61 officers who negotiate with groups willing to join the ceasefire and co-ordinate the deliveries of aid.

Opposition activists in different parts of Syria said the situation has been "cautiously calm" since the truce went into effect, reporting sporadic violations.

According to Syrian state media, Isil launched two suicide attacks near the central town of Salamiyeh, one on an army checkpoint that killed two and wounded four. The second car bomb was destroyed by Syrian troops before reaching a military post.

No one claimed responsibility for the blasts in the area of Salamiyeh where most residents are Shia. Isil has claimed responsibility for several bombings in Syria that claimed the lives of dozens in recent weeks.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosion was the work of Isil, adding that the two killed were soldiers. It added that Syrian warplanes attacked suspected Isil positions in areas outside Salamiyeh.

In the northern province of Raqqa, Isil fighters stormed the border town of Tal Abyad and the nearby village of Suluk that were captured months ago by Kurdish fighters, according to a Syrian rebel official.

Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces, said the fighting began after midnight last Friday and was still ongoing.

Sillo and the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, said some of the Isil fighters came from Turkey. The YPG statement said its fighters had killed the attackers after hours of fighting.

The Aamaq news agency, which is affiliated with the extremist group, reported that Isil fighters launched a "surprise attack" on several areas in northern Raqqa province, where Tal Abyad is located. But the report did not provide further details.

Intense fighting is ongoing near the northern town of Khanaser between troops and pro-government gunmen against Isil. Battles have continued for days in the strategic area that is close to the highway that links Aleppo with central and western Syria.

State TV said Syrian warplanes attacked Isil oil tanker trucks in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

The Syrian government and 97 rebel and militant groups said they would abide by the ceasefire.

In southern Syria, the situation was "calm" yesterday, according to opposition activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, who is based in the southern city of Daraa. Calm also prevailed in large parts of the central province of Homs.

"The situation yesterday was very bad and fighting was intense," Mr Masalmeh said. "Then it was like a football match. People were excited and once the referee blew his whistle all the noise stopped."

The observatory reported clashes between the Army of Islam faction and fighters loyal to Isil in the Damascus suburb of Dumair.

It also reported two rockets hitting the Damascus suburb of Bala and a violation of the ceasefire in the coastal province of Latakia, where Syrian troops killed 12 militants.

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