US Declares Aleppo Cease-Fire, Syria Says Only for 48 Hours

Sporadic violence persisted in Aleppo on Wednesday as U.S. officials announced an agreement had been reached with Russia to extend Syria's fragile cease-fire to the deeply contested northern city. The Syrian military said the truce would last only 48 hours. 

Restoration of a partial truce would bring relief to residents on both sides of Syria's largest city after two weeks of relentless violence that has killed nearly 300 people, destroyed hospitals and brought it to the brink of humanitarian disaster. 

It was not immediately clear whether the new effort will be observed or for how long. The U.S. and Russia finalized a nationwide cease-fire in late February, but have struggled to make it stick. 

The agreement was reached late Tuesday and took effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday Damascus time (7 a.m. EDT), Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Since the truce began, "we have seen an overall decrease in violence ... even though there are some reports of continued fighting in some locations, which does not surprise us because it only went into effect one minute after midnight," Kerry said.

"We expect all the parties ... to fully abide by the renewed cessation in Aleppo. That means the regime and the opposition alike," he told reporters. "We look to Russia ... to press for the regime's compliance with this effort and the United States will do its part with respect to the opposition." 

The U.S. and Russia have been working to salvage the cease-fire they brokered together, which held surprisingly well until two weeks ago amid an alarming uptick of violence around Aleppo. Shells slammed into hospitals and residential areas on both sides of the divided city, plunging it into renewed violence that quickly escalated to levels unseen in months. 

The agreement on Aleppo follows an earlier deal to reaffirm the truce in the Damascus suburbs and in coastal Latakia province. 

The Syrian military confirmed the truce but said it would not take effect until 12:01 a.m. Thursday and last for only 48 hours. It did not elaborate and there was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. 

Rebels fighting in Aleppo did not immediately react to the news. But Kurdish forces said the besieged, predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud appeared to be excluded, saying that opposition forces shelled the district Wednesday evening, killing one person and wounding five. 

The cessation of hostilities doesn't apply to the Islamic State group or the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, which operate in parts of Aleppo. 

In some battles in Aleppo and elsewhere, Western and Arab-backed militants have fought alongside those swearing allegiance to al-Qaida, making it hard to determine whether Syrian government offensives or Russian airstrikes against them constitute violations. Such dynamics could cause any cease-fire to easily unravel again, particularly with no clear mechanism for control or accountability. 

Kerry and the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said last week that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to assign additional personnel to Geneva to work around the clock to create a better mechanism for monitoring a new cease-fire. 

De Mistura, said the alternative to a cease-fire in Aleppo is "catastrophic," raising the possibility that 400,000 people could head for the Turkish border. 

"The test is Aleppo now," he said after meeting the German and French foreign ministers in Berlin on Wednesday. 

Nearly 300 people have been killed during the latest spate of violence, which has put the city at the center of the Syrian conflict. Over the last two weeks, hospitals and civilian areas in the divided city have come under attack from government warplanes, as well as shelling from rebel forces. 

State TV said government troops repelled an overnight rebel attack on an Aleppo suburb controlled by the government. Pro-opposition activists confirmed the report, adding that government forces regained control of a shopping mall that has become a new front line with rebel fighters in the western part of the city. 

The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, described the clashes as some of the worst between the government and rebel fighters over the last year in Aleppo. 

Also Wednesday, the Islamic State group said its fighters had advanced in the strategic Shaer gas fields in central Homs province, overrunning 13 government checkpoints and capturing a Syrian soldier. The militant group posted photographs it said were of the captured soldier on social media accounts. 

There was no comment from the Syrian government on the reported capture. 

The Observatory, a monitoring group that relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said the Islamic State group seized control of significant parts of the gas field after three days of clashes with government troops there.

The massive fields, which supply commercial gas to the national grid, have been coveted by the militant group, which has briefly controlled them over the past two years.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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