GENEVA – A U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire in Syria, now in its sixth day, is largely holding despite sporadic clashes in some areas, a U.N. envoy said Thursday, raising expectations ahead of next week’s planned resumption of Geneva peace talks.
Staffan de Mistura spoke as he convened a group monitoring the truce amid hopes of a breakthrough that could pave the way for regular humanitarian aid deliveries to remote and besieged areas that have been cut off by the fighting.
It was the third meeting of the task force of the International Syria Support Group, made up of world and regional powers under U.S. and Russian leadership, which is monitoring the “cessation of hostilities” that began on Saturday.
De Mistura said the cease-fire has “greatly reduced” violence in Syria and laid out hopes of resuming peace talks between Syrian sides in the conflict. The talks were called off last month after a spike in fighting.
“In general, the cessation has been holding,” he said, speaking alongside his humanitarian aid adviser Jan Egeland. “Unfortunately, we have to admit … there are still a number of places where fighting has continued,” though it has been contained.
The situation is “fragile, success is not guaranteed, but progress has been visible,” the envoy concluded.
The cease-fire has become the most promising initiative in years to help end a five-war that has killed at least 250,000 people, driven millions of Syrians to flee the country, and given an opening to militants such as the extremist Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, as Syria’s al-Qaida branch is known, to seize large swaths of land.
The two militant factions and other extremist groups designated terrorist organizations by the United Nations are not included in the diplomatic initiatives.
De Mistura, a veteran Swedish diplomat who has become U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon’s point man on Syria, appeared to ease back from a recent statement that he hopes to convene intra-Syrian talks – between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s envoys and representatives of the so-called moderate opposition – in the Swiss city next Wednesday.
While he had set a “penciled date” for next Wednesday for those “proximity talks,” de Mistura acknowledged logistical issues, such as few Geneva hotel rooms available amid an auto show. Some envoys could show up as late as March 14, he said.
Meanwhile, Egeland said there has been progress in aid shipments to besieged cities across Syria. “In the last two weeks, 236 trucks have served 115,000 people,” he said.
But he also warned of snags in getting enough trucks in place as well as difficulties in winning approvals from Syrian government officials, who have at times stripped out badly needed medical supplies from convoys.
Egeland said U.N. officials had received “indications” that there will be “a much simplified system” for gaining approvals to ship in aid, including a monthly schedule.
The Syrian cease-fire and the humanitarian situation were on tap for discussion at a meeting of foreign ministers from France, Germany and Britain in Paris on Friday, the French government said.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said the leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain and France were planning to speak – also on Friday – about ways to shore up the Syria cease-fire. Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, said Western leaders would stress to Russian President Vladimir Putin the importance of maintaining the truce so that peace talks can make progress in Geneva next week.
In Damascus, Ahmad Mounir, Syria’s deputy minister of national reconciliation, said the cease-fire could succeed if Turkey and Saudi Arabia halted their support for militants.
Mounir told a group of international reporters on a trip organized by Russian foreign and defense ministries that a peaceful settlement for his country would also curb the flow to refugees to Europe. If there is no peace, Mounir says the “terror threat to Europe will increase.”
Also Thursday, Syrian state TV reported a sudden electricity blackout across the entire country for unknown reasons. Blackouts have been frequent in the course of the conflict but it’s rare for the whole country to be affected. Previous blackouts were blamed on rebel attacks targeting the electricity network but no reason was giving for Thursday’s outage.
Later, state-run news agency SANA said Internet services were also partially halted on Thursday as a result of damage to one of the network hubs. It said services were later restored and that electricity was being gradually restored.
Earlier in the day, Amnesty International reported that Russian and Syrian government forces have been targeting hospitals as a strategy of war during the Syria conflict.
The advocacy group said it has “compelling evidence” of at least six deliberate attacks on medical facilities in the Aleppo governorate in the past twelve weeks, which killed at least three civilians, including a medical worker, and wounded 44.
Amnesty said the attacks amounted to war crimes, and aimed to pave the way for pro-government ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its Syria campaign. Assad has also denied targeting civilians, saying he is waging a war against terrorism, but he has said that it is a “rule of thumb” in war that innocent civilians die.
Aleppo witnessed some of the country’s fiercest fighting as government forces backed by Russian airstrikes cut off a rebel supply route from Turkey ahead of the start of the truce. A supply route to an opposition stronghold in the eastern part of the city of Aleppo remains open through another border crossing with Turkey, but it is far narrower and more dangerous than the one that used to run to the north.
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