Air strikes batter rebels ahead of Syria ceasefire

2016-02-26 15:57
Members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and residents search through the rubble for bodies following an airstrike in the rebel-held city of Douma in eastern Ghouta. (Abd Doumany, AFP)

Members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and residents search through the rubble for bodies following an airstrike in the rebel-held city of Douma in eastern Ghouta. (Abd Doumany, AFP)

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Beirut - Intense Russian air strikes battered rebel bastions across Syria on Friday, a monitor said, just hours before a midnight deadline for a landmark ceasefire in the country's five-year civil war.

With the ceasefire due to take effect at 22:00GMT, US President Barack Obama has warned Damascus and key ally Moscow that the "world will be watching".

Both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the main opposition body have agreed to the deal, which allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and other jihadists.

Wave of attacks

The agreement brokered by Russia and the United States marks the biggest diplomatic push yet to help end Syria's violence, but has been plagued by doubts after the failure of previous peace efforts.

Members of the 17-nation group backing the process were to meet in Geneva later on Friday to work out further details of the so-called "cessation of hostilities", which is then expected to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, diplomats said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Russia and the regime had launched a wave of attacks on non-jihadist rebel areas ahead of the deadline.

"It's more intense than usual," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Russia launched air strikes in Syria last September saying it was targeting "terrorists" but critics have accused Moscow of hitting rebel forces in support of Assad, a longtime ally.

The Observatory said there had been Russian strikes overnight on rebel bastions including the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, the north of Homs province and the west of Aleppo province.

There were at least 26 air strikes on Eastern Ghouta including 10 on its main city of Douma which was facing heavy regime shelling, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Moscow would continue targeting "terrorist groups".

"The decisive fight against them will, without doubt, be continued," Putin said in televised remarks.

"We understand fully and take into account that this will be a complicated and maybe even contradictory process of reconciliation, but there is no other way," Putin said.

Partial truce

The intensified attacks prompted Turkey, a key supporter of opposition forces, to express worries over the viability of the ceasefire.

"We are seriously concerned over the future of the ceasefire because of the continuing Russian air raids and ground attacks by forces of Assad," said presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara.

The complexity of Syria's battlefields - where moderate and Islamist rebel forces often fight alongside jihadist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front - has raised serious doubts about the feasibility of a ceasefire.

Diplomats are reported to be working to define areas that will fall under the partial truce and to set up monitoring mechanisms.

The UN's Syria envoy has said he hopes the agreement will lead to a resumption of peace talks which collapsed in Geneva earlier this month.

Read more on:    bashar al-assad  |  barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  us  |  russia  |  syria

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