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US working to fix language issues with Syria truce hotline

Matthew Lee Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The State Department said Wednesday it is working to fix language issues with staff at a 24-hour telephone hotline it set up for Syrians to report alleged violations of the cease-fire that took effect last weekend.

Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that at least some of the volunteer operators taking calls were not fluent enough in Arabic to accurately log the allegations. He said the department is in the process of ensuring that the matter is addressed. The issue came to light when several Arabic speakers called the hotline to report alleged truce violations but said they were unsure if the operators understood them fully.

“We are aware that there were some language issues and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers that are able to field incoming calls,” Toner said. He added that the hotline had been set up on very short notice and that the Arabic language skills of some of the operators, who are all State Department employees, “weren’t properly vetted.”

The problem was first reported by Syria Direct, a non-profit news outlet whose reporters were involved in the attempt to report the breaches.

The hotline is one of several ways, including email, text and Google Voice, that the State Department set up to report alleged truce violations to the United States. The contact numbers have been posted at various online sites in English and Arabic. Syrians can also contact the United Nations and other members of the international cease-fire task force to report breaches.

Toner also said the U.S. was aware of reports that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons in attacks on opposition forces since the truce came into force. However, he stressed twice that the reports were not confirmed and were still under investigation.

Overall, he said U.S. officials had seen “undeniably an overall reduction in airstrikes on the Syrian opposition and civilians” since the truce began at midnight on Saturday.

At the same time, he said the U.S. was concerned about reports of Syrian tank and artillery attacks against civilians in several areas. He said those reports were being looked into by the cease-fire task force, which is based in Geneva.

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