Friday October 26, 2012
Syria ceasefire takes effect for Eid
DAMASCUS: A ceasefire came into effect in the early hours of Friday after the Syrian army and main rebel force fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad's regime agreed to down arms for a four-day Muslim holiday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm followed a night of fierce clashes nationwide, including in the Damascus area, in second city Aleppo and in the centre of the country near the border with Lebanon.
The truce took hold with morning prayers kicking off the Eid al-Adha feast at the end of the hajj pilgrimage, and state television showed President Assad attending a Damascus mosque, smiling and chatting with worshippers.
The fragile ceasefire was immediately tested, however, as security forces opened fire at anti-regime protests that followed morning prayers marking the start of Eid.
The protests took place in Damascus and its suburbs, in second city Aleppo, in the northeast in Deir Ezzor and Raqa and at Inkhel in the south, where three people were injured, according to activists and the Observatory.
Regime forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) said Thursday they would follow UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's call for the temporary ceasefire, but both reserved the right to respond to any aggression.
If the ceasefire holds it would be the first real breakthrough in halting - even temporarily - the 19-month conflict that rights groups say has killed more than 35,000 people in Syria.
In Aleppo, residents were sceptical the truce would hold but the relative lull saw families returning to bombed out homes on the front line to recover possessions and inspect the damage.
"He's a cheater," spat Abu Ali, an electrician and father of four, when asked if he believed Assad would abide by the truce.
"Nobody believes him. He'll give you a promise then do whatever he wants," he snapped en route to collecting his children's winter clothes from his home in Salaheddin, a bastion of rebel support in Aleppo heavily damaged by fighting.
The ceasefire was backed this week by the United Nations Security Council and a spokesman for UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that "the world is now watching" to ensure both sides stick by their commitment.
The conflict began in March 2011 with pro-reform protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but is now a civil war pitting mainly Sunni rebels against Assad's regime dominated by his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
- 'Walk the walk' -
The United States also expressed hope the ceasefire will be respected.
"What we are hoping and expecting is that they will not just talk the talk of ceasefire, but that they will walk the walk, beginning with the regime," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
A Syrian army said it would cease military operations from Friday morning to Monday, but warned it would react if "armed terrorist groups" carry out attacks or reinforce their positions, or if fighters cross into the country.
FSA General Mustafa al-Sheikh said the rebels too would lay down their arms but warned: "If they fire a single shot, we will respond with 100."
He also cautioned that he could not speak on behalf of all rebels. At least one key rebel group, the Islamist-linked Al-Nusra Front, has indicated it will not abide by the truce.
An April ceasefire announced by Brahimi's predecessor, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, failed to take hold.
Heavy fighting had continued Thursday on the eve of the holiday, with rebel forces moving into new areas of Aleppo, including Kurdish and Christian districts.
At least 135 people were killed in fighting Thursday, the Observatory said, including 65 civilians, 41 soldiers and 29 rebels.
Brahimi has stressed the importance of even a temporary lull in the fighting, saying: "If we succeed with this modest initiative, a longer ceasefire can be built" that would allow the launch of a political process.
He said he wanted the ceasefire to help create political space for dialogue and for aid to flow in, particularly to Aleppo, Homs in the centre and Idlib in the northwest.
Syria's key ally Iran dubbed the regime's ceasefire declaration a "positive step and worthy of praise."
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi hoped that "the other sides give an appropriate response to the Syrian government's goodwill and by respecting the ceasefire to pave the way for (the return of) calmness in Syria."
The UN's refugee agency said it was ready to send emergency aid to thousands of Syrian families in previously inaccessible areas if the ceasefire holds. - AFP