MIDDLE EAST

Breaches reported in Syrian cease-fire, but it's mostly holding

Syrian opposition groups reported renewed Russian airstrikes in Syria on Sunday, the second day of a provisional truce, but Moscow said the cease-fire appeared to be holding despite violations by rebel factions.

A Saudi-based opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee, reported 26 Russian airstrikes on Sunday against rebel factions supposedly covered by the truce. The committee said at least 29 people had been killed and dozens injured in pro-government breaches since the truce began Saturday. Russia is allied with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The committee assailed the alleged attacks and called on the United Nations “to intervene immediately to stop the crimes committed against the Syrian people.”

There was no independent confirmation of the reported attacks.

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Russia, which said it postponed air attacks Saturday, the first day of the truce, did not provide details on its aerial operations Sunday.

It was unclear whether the purported airstrikes targeted zones occupied by Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, or Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that controls large stretches of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Al Nusra Front and Islamic State are excluded from the United Nations-backed truce. Both groups are defined as terrorist organizations by the United Nations. Russia has said it would continue to target terrorist groups in Syria.

The head of the Saudi-based opposition committee, Riad Hijab, warned in a statement to the United Nations that continued attacks by the Syrian government and its allies were undermining the truce and the prospects for a political resolution of the Syrian crisis.

The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has called for a new round of peace talks beginning March 7 in Geneva. An earlier round of talks collapsed in February in the face of deep disagreements on both sides.

The interim cease-fire is regarded as the most extensive effort to date to halt the fighting in Syria, which has been battered by withering conflict for almost five years. The Syrian war has resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, caused widespread destruction and sent millions fleeing from their homes, contributing to a refugee crisis in Europe.

Moscow intervened in the Syrian war five months ago on behalf of the Assad government. The Russian aerial onslaught has helped to shift the conflict in favor of Assad’s forces.

But Russia has vowed to respect the truce, which was hammered out by Russian and U.S. negotiators. Russian authorities say they have been closely monitoring reported violations and have been in touch with U.S. authorities who are also watching the cease-fire.

Russian authorities said they had recorded nine violations of the truce in a 24-hour period, mostly by opposition factions. The violations included shelling of Damascus, which is firmly in government hands, by armed groups based in the suburbs of the capital, Russia said.

Russian Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko, who heads Moscow’s cease-fire oversight efforts, said Sunday that the cessation had been “generally observed,” reported Russia’s Tass news agency.

However, Russia charged that as many as 100 militants from Turkey had crossed the border into Syria over the weekend and participated in an attack on the northern Syrian city of Tal Abyad, which is under the control of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Shelling from Turkey also targeted the Syrian side, Kuralenko told reporters. Russia was seeking clarification on the incident from the United States, which heads a anti-Islamic State coalition that includes Turkey.

There was no immediate reaction on the incident from Washington or Ankara. Turkey, which has pledged to abide by the truce, has repeatedly denied allegations that it has aided Al Qaeda-style militants fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Follow @mdcneville for news from Iraq and Syria.

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