Truce reached in Idlib after weeks of bombing
BEIRUT - A ceasefire in northwest Syria reduced violence in the rebel stronghold, a monitor said, with no air strikes on Friday after a three-months army offensive killed hundreds while yielding no big territorial gains.
Though the combatants exchanged fire and shelling on Friday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian government and Russian warplanes mounted no air raids.
More than 400 civilians have been killed in the escalation since late April and more than 440,000 uprooted, the United Nations said last week.
According to the Observatory, some 790 civilians have been killed in the past three months along with 1,000 jihadists and other rebels and around 900 pro-government fighters.
The targeted region is part of the last major piece of territory which rebels hold after facing defeat across much of Syria at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad with his allies Russia and Iran.
Syrian state media said the ceasefire would start on Thursday night if militants fulfilled a Russian-Turkish deal which had tried last year to create a demilitarised buffer zone.
"A cautious calm has reigned since just before midnight (2100 GMT)," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, said.
He said that Syrian and Russia aircraft were no longer seen flying over Idlib while "fighting on the ground had also ceased on all fronts in the past few hours".
An AFP correspondent reported that an early warning system known as Sentry registered the last air raids on the Idlib province town of Khan Sheikhun just two minutes before the truce took effect at midnight.
The Sentry programme uses human observers and a network of sensors to compute a predicted impact location when Syrian or allied warplanes take off.
'Situation is apparent'
The Turkey-backed opposition, which is taking part in Syria talks hosted by Kazakhstan, agreed to the ceasefire and said it must "guarantee the safety of civilians". It reserved the right to respond to "violations by Assad's regime and its militias".
Though Turkey-backed rebel factions also operate in Idlib province in the northwest, the dominant force there is the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance, formerly the Nusra Front.
In a statement on Friday, it said the truce declaration from Damascus proved the failure of "the criminal regime's military operation against the liberated north." Tahrir al-Sham did not reject the ceasefire but warned that any attack from the other side would cancel it, vowing to retaliate.
Russia's RIA news agency cited a Kazakh Foreign Ministry official as saying the agreement does not include jihadists who might not observe it.
Turkey is following the situation after the ceasefire reports, the Foreign Ministry said.
"In every talk we hold with Russia, we tell them the (Syrian) regime needs to stop its attacks ... but the situation is apparent," Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said.
Under its deals with Moscow, Ankara has forces stationed on the ground in the Idlib region at a dozen military positions.
A series of truce deals have failed to fully end Idlib fighting and Russian-Turkish attempts have not managed to resolve the eight-year conflict.
The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a September buffer zone deal, but it has come under increasing bombardment by the regime and its Russian ally over the past three months.
The United Nations will investigate attacks on UN-supported facilities and other humanitarian sites, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday, after two-thirds of the Security Council pushed for an inquiry.
Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Peru, Poland, Kuwait, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia had delivered a demarche - a formal diplomatic petition - over the lack of an inquiry into attacks on some 14 locations in Syria.
Syrian state news agency SANA said militants fired missiles that hit a village in government territory, killing one person and injuring three other civilians on Friday.
In the latest offensive, Assad's side has been unable to gain much ground from the insurgents. The government says it has been responding to militant attacks.
Syria's representative at peace talks in Kazakhstan on Friday said the success of the Idlib ceasefire would depend on Turkey disarming rebels of heavy weapons and implementing a buffer zone..
Syrian negotiator Bashar Jaafari attacked the Turkish military presence in the northwest of the country and called Syria's ceasefire statement on Thursday "a test of Turkey's intentions".
The comments came during the second day of the talks brokered by Syria's allies Russia and Iran, along with rebel-backer Turkey.
Jaafari also called on the guarantors of the talks to assume "their responsiblities by putting pressure on Turkey" to fulfil the conditions of an accord struck last year.
"The ceasefire agreement is conditioned on Turkey upholding the Astana and Sochi agreements by disarming terrorists of heavy and medium weapons," Jaafari said.
Jaafari accused the militant groups of shelling areas under regime control in northwest Syria "from areas Turkey controls in Idlib."
"Even though we are patient, this time our patience will be limited. We will not be waiting endlessly for Turkey to fulfill its commitments," he said.
A joint statement on the talks in Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan released by Russia, Iran and Turkey showed little progress towards ending Syria's conflict.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with a crackdown on anti-government protests.