Rival sides trade accusations of Syria truce violations

Saudi foreign minister says coming days will show whether Syrian regime and Russia are serious about ceasefire.

Damascus // The main players in Syria’s war traded accusations on Sunday over violations of the first nationwide ceasefire in the five-year conflict, but the truce remained largely intact on its second day.

Aid groups hope to use the lull in fighting that has claimed 270,000 lives and displaced more than half the population to deliver desperately needed supplies.

A successful truce could also pave the way for a resumption of peace talks that collapsed in early February as a Russia-backed regime offensive in northern Syria caused tens of thousands to flee.

The main opposition grouping on Sunday described the ceasefire as “positive” but vowed to lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations and foreign governments about breaches on the first day.

“We have violations here and there, but in general it is a lot better than before and people are comfortable,” said Salem Al Meslet, spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee.

He said the HNC had recorded 15 violations by regime forces and allied groups around the country on Saturday, but insisted rebel groups did not return fire.

Mr Al Meslet said the HNC had not received any maps outlining which areas were included in the ceasefire or documents explaining the monitoring mechanism.

Syria's Al Watan daily, which is close to the government, said on Sunday that those maps were still being "kept secret".

The ceasefire does not apply to territory held by the ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate.

Saudi Arabia, a staunch opponent of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, accused Russia of flouting the ceasefire and targeting “moderate opposition” groups.

“Things will become clearer in the coming days on whether the regime and Russia are serious or not about the ceasefire,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said.

Russia, which has waged a five-month bombing campaign to support Mr Al Assad, blamed “moderate” rebels, Turkey and extremists for nine ceasefire violations.

But “on the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented”, said Lt Gen Sergei Kuralenko, head of Moscow’s coordination centre in Syria.

In Damascus, dentistry student Mehdi Al Ani spent Sunday at his university’s cafe with friends, enjoying the sunshine.

“Yesterday, we only heard two or three shells – but I pretended like I didn’t hear anything. The ceasefire will continue, God willing,” he said.

In the second city of Aleppo, children strolled to school without staying close to the pavement for fear of rocket attacks.

“There’s something strange in this silence. We used to go to sleep and wake up with the sound of raids and artillery,” said Abu Omar, 45, who runs a bakery in rebel-held east Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, reported air strikes – believed to be either Syrian or Russian – on seven villages in the provinces of Hama and Aleppo.

It was not clear if the raids hit areas covered by the ceasefire, which excludes territory held by ISIL and Al Nusra.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said only one of the villages, Kafr Hamra in Aleppo, was controlled by Al Nusra and the others were in the hands of non-extremist rebels.

As the recriminations flew, Washington urged all sides to be patient.

“Setbacks are inevitable,” a senior US administration official said.

“Even under the best of circumstances, we don’t expect the violence to end immediately. In fact, we are certain that there will continue to be fighting, in part because of organisations like ISIL and Al Nusra.”

A task force of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group set up to monitor the deal described the first day as largely successful.

“The United Nations, the United States and Russia have made a positive assessment of the first hours of the cessation of hostilities,” a western diplomat said after a meeting of the group in Geneva on Saturday.

The UN reported “some incidents” in apparent violation of the truce, but “they have been defused”, he said.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to relaunch peace talks on March 7 if the truce continues and more aid is delivered to civilians affected by the war.

* Agence France-Presse