Damascus Agrees to de Mistura’s Humanitarian Ceasefire in Aleppo

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Syrian opposition Islamic Front members make preparations ahead of their attacks with howitzers, made up by propane cylinder and named 'hell', to the army and pro-government forces located in Melah region, on the north side of Aleppo, Syria on February 15, 2015. Anadolu/Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd

Published Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Syrian army was willing to suspend its aerial bombardment of Aleppo for six weeks to allow for a localized humanitarian ceasefire, a UN diplomat said Tuesday.

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, is a focal point of the ongoing war pitting the army and allied fighters against a range of insurgents which include al-Qaeda's Syria wing the al-Nusra Front, Islamist brigades and Western-backed rebels.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, announced the initiative during private meetings with the Security Council. Rebel fighters who hold parts of Aleppo but have no air power would also be sought out and asked to suspend rocket and mortar fire as part of the plan.

"The government of Syria has indicated to me its willingness to halt all aerial bombing and artillery shelling for a period of six weeks all over the city of Aleppo from a date we'll announce from Damascus," de Mistura told journalists after addressing the Security Council.

De Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat, recently went to Syria and met President Bashar al-Assad. He said he'd asked the government to facilitate a UN mission to identify a district in Aleppo to serve as a trial area for a ceasefire.

"We'll see if the freeze holds and can be replicated," he said. "The purpose is to spare as many civilians as possible while we try to find a political solution."

De Mistura acknowledged a ceasefire would be tough to achieve, given past failures, but said there was "a glimmer of hope."

"When you don't have a treatment you don't have a cure, but you have to insist in reducing at least this type of violence from heaviest weapons and engage all those who have weapons to actually follow that," he added.

The UN envoy told the council he would travel to Syria to discuss the issue further and gave no indication of when the suspension of aerial bombardments might start, said diplomats attending the closed door meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Appointed as the UN's special envoy for the Syria crisis last July, de Mistura briefed the Security Council on initial findings of his mission aimed at ending the four-year conflict that has devastated Syria. He had last year proposed to Syria the setting up of ceasefire zones to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid in Aleppo.

Some Security Council members, however, remain skeptical because a similar measure in Homs saw opposition forces abandon their positions only to have them seized by pro-government forces. A council diplomat called that deal a "fool's bargain" that was "not a humanitarian ceasefire but a capitulation."

On Tuesday, the Syrian army backed by allied fighters captured several villages north of Aleppo from insurgents and blocked a main supply route leading into the northern city amid heavy fighting.

SANA, Syria's state news agency, said the army seized at least six villages near Aleppo.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said heavy battles north of Aleppo had blocked a road leading towards the Turkish border that rebels use as a supply route.

The army also took villages including Bashkoy and Sifat, while fighting raged in Ratyan and Hardetneed, the Observatory said. It added that at least 18 insurgents were killed.

Syrian state television said on Tuesday five people had been killed and 18 wounded in Aleppo by insurgent rocket fire. The Observatory reported battles between the army and allied fighters, Nusra Front and Islamic battalions in at least six neighborhoods, including Old Aleppo and Jamiat al-Zahra.

Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar news channel said the Syrian army had taken control of areas north of Aleppo in battles which had killed "tens of militants."

According to Observatory estimates, more than 210,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, which will enter its fifth year next month, with clashes between numerous factions regularly flaring across the country.

The advance on Aleppo is the second major offensive by the army in a week. The army and allied combatants from Lebanon's Hezbollah group have also launched a large-scale assault in southern Syria against insurgents.

Fighting in southern Syria has killed scores of combatants in the past week in one of the last areas where non-Islamist rebels opposing pro-government forces have a foothold.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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