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UN envoy in Syria to seek Aleppo truce

By AFP - Feb 28,2015 - Last updated at Feb 28,2015

DAMASCUS — A UN envoy arrived in the Syrian capital Saturday for talks with the regime to try to finalise a deal to freeze fighting in the war-ravaged second city of Aleppo.

Staffan de Mistura visited Damascus as the army and pro-regime fighters regained territory in southern Syria from forces opposed to President Bashar Al Assad.

De Mistura "hopes to set in motion as soon as possible his project" to halt fighting in Aleppo for six weeks, said a member of his delegation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The envoy has met government officials and opposition chiefs in recent weeks to promote his plan for a temporary truce in Aleppo in order to move aid into the northern city.

Once Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo has been devastated by fighting that began in mid-2012, and the city is now split between loyalist forces and rebels.

Last week De Mistura said the government had shown a willingness to suspend aerial bombardment of Aleppo for six weeks to allow a humanitarian ceasefire.

Under the plan, rebels would be asked to suspend rocket and mortar fire there during the freeze.

De Mistura incurred the wrath of the opposition earlier in February by describing Assad as “part of the solution” to the conflict.

About 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests that spiralled into a multi-sided civil war drawing foreign jihadists.

In Daraa province, southwest of Damascus, regime troops backed by Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah, Iranian advisers and Iraqi militiamen gained territory from opposition rebels and Al Nusra Front, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday.

The pro-regime forces took control of three villages and several hills in Daraa in clashes that left seven rebels dead, the Britain-based monitor said.

Hizbollah and regime forces launched an operation earlier this month to try to reverse sweeping gains in the south made by anti-Assad rebels and Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Al Nusra Front.

 

Iranian advisers 

 

The strategically important region is near Damascus, the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The observatory estimates that 5,000 Hizbollah fighters are deployed in Syria.

Iran has also acknowledged sending military advisers and high ranking officers from the elite Revolutionary Guard to help its ally Assad.

In northern Syria, meanwhile, dozens of people were killed in fierce fighting that broke out on Friday between Al Nusra Front and US-backed rebels for a strategic northern military base.

At least 29 fighters from the Western-armed Hazm movement died along with six Al Nusra Front jihadists, according to the observatory.

“Al Nusra captured Base 46,” said observatory director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

Base 46 is a sprawling military compound that rebels seized in November 2012 from troops loyal to Assad.

The observatory also reported that a “court” of the Daesh terror group near Tal Tamr in Hasakeh province had ordered the release of 28 Assyrian Christians out of a group of at least 220 abducted by the jihadists last week.

De Mistura’s visit to Damascus coincides with a meeting of the main opposition National Coalition in the Turkish border town of Kilis to discuss the Aleppo freeze plan, an alliance spokesman said.

Those at the meeting — including coalition chief Khaled Khoja, opposition figures and representatives of Aleppo’s civil society — would declare a position on De Mistura’s proposal.

It would run into Sunday and conclude “with an announcement on the creation of a follow-up committee that will make contact with De Mistura about his project”, said the spokesman.

When he revealed his plan this month, De Mistura said he had asked the Syrian government to allow a UN team into Aleppo to identify a district for a trial ceasefire.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told Al Watan newspaper that the envoy suggested the trial begin simultaneously in the Salaheddin and Saif Al Dawla neighbourhoods.

The two battleground districts in southwestern Aleppo are divided between loyalist forces and rebels.

French parliamentarians who met Assad on Wednesday have said the embattled leader expressed support for the plan which De Mistura has been mulling since his appointment in July.

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