Aid starts to flow on third day of Syria truce

Syrian Red Crescent sends out dozens of lorries as ceasefire holds despite sporadic fighting.

BEIRUT // Truckloads of aid started to arrive in besieged Syrian districts yesterday as a shaky truce held for a third day across much of the war zone.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the ceasefire is holding “by and large” on its third day after nearly five years of conflict despite sporadic fighting and growing accusations of violations.

The halt in fighting allowed the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to send dozens of lorries carrying humanitarian assistance into a rebel-held suburb of Damascus for the first time since the ceasefire went into effect.

Muhannad Al Assadi, a Red Crescent spokesman, said the 51 lorries were carrying domestic supplies such as blankets, soap and diapers.

The UN also said it plans to deliver life-saving assistance to about 154,000 people living in besieged locations over the next five days.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the assistance will include food, water and sanitation supplies, as well as non-food items and medicine.

Aid deliveries are a main opposition demand ahead of the planned resumption of peace talks in Geneva on March 7. An attempt to restart talks collapsed earlier this month over escalating violence, including a massive Russian-backed government offensive in Aleppo.

A war of words between the Syrian government and Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the opposition, has meanwhile added to the rising tensions.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said statements by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir were “lies meant to boost the morale” of militants who have suffered setbacks in Syria in recent weeks and demonstrate the kingdom’s “destructive role” in Syria.

Mr Al Jubeir had reiterated Saudi Arabia’s longstanding position that Syrian President Bashar Assad must leave power, either peacefully or through military means. The foreign minister also accused Syrian forces of violating the ceasefire.

Inn Geneva, Mr Ban confirmed receiving a letter from the High Negotiations Committee, the main umbrella opposition group, complaining of continuing violations by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The letter sent on Sunday urged the UN to help “specify the territory covered by the truce to prevent hostilities.”

The Russian and US-brokered ceasefire that went into effect Saturday excludes ISIL and Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra. The ceasefire has significantly reduced violence across the war-ravaged country, bringing some respite to civilians, particularly from air strikes.

But accusations of breaches by both sides threaten to undermine the deal, which aims to bring the Syrian government and the opposition back to peace talks in Geneva next week. Mr Ban said he wanted the ceasefire extended beyond the planned duration of two weeks.

Fighting in Aleppo province continued Monday, with Syrian state media reporting that troops and other pro-government forces have opened the road linking the northern city of Aleppo with central and western Syria after it was cut by ISIL last week.

In the central province of Hama, warplanes carried out repeated attacks on the village of Harebnafsah amid fighting between troops and militants, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, both opposition monitoring groups. The LCC said the warplanes were Russian. It was not immediately clear which militant groups were taking part in the fighting.

The Observatory reported that government forces captured an area near the Damascus suburb of Harasta after a day of fighting with militants, including Jabhat Al Nusra.

The opposition on Sunday reported air raids on several parts of northern Syria and warned that continued violations would jeopardise the planned resumption of peace talks.

Riad Hijab, who heads the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, said in the statement to Mr Ban that Russian, Iranian and government forces have not stopped hostilities since the ceasefire went into effect.

Mr Hijab said there had been 24 instances of shelling and five of ground attacks. He added that Russian warplanes carried out 26 air strikes on Sunday alone targeting rebels that are abiding by the truce.

The French foreign minister called for a meeting “without delay” of a task force to monitor the cessation of hostilities following reports of air strikes targeting the moderate opposition.

Jean-Marc Ayrault spoke shortly before addressing a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, had planned a meeting of the task force, led by the United States and Russia, for later in the day.

Mr Ayrault told reporters he planned to discuss the “attacks including by air” with Mr de Mistura and Mr Ban. Critics say Russia and Syrian forces have been targeting the moderate opposition.

* Associated Press