Middle East

Syria conflict: Truce 'boosts peace talks', leaders agree

A Syrian soldier keeps watch near Maarzaf, west of Hama, on 2 March 2016. Image copyright AP
Image caption Despite several attacks, the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding

The truce broadly holding in Syria will create momentum behind peace talks, major European powers say.

The leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Italy and the UK had a telephone conversation on Friday after which they agreed to use the "positive dynamic", said the office of UK PM David Cameron.

EU countries asked Russia to exert influence over Syria's government to respect the truce, Germany said.

Scattered attacks have not threatened the truce, which began last Saturday.

However, both the opposition and the government have accused each other of violating the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the US and Russia.

The truce does not include the jihadist groups Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front.

Taking advantage of the lull, thousands of protesters across Syria took to the streets for some of the most widespread rallies in years.

Demonstrators in parts of Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa and Homs called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters marched in Aleppo, echoing scenes from 2011 and 2012 when similar demonstrations took place across Syria

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura says he plans to reconvene talks aimed at ending the five-year conflict in Syria next Wednesday, with their format flexible to enable some parties to turn up days later.

UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said progress had been made in getting aid to besieged areas of Syria.

There would be further attempts at air-drops of aid over the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where 200,000 people are surrounded by IS militants, within days or weeks, Mr Egeland said.

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes in five years of Syria's civil war that began with the aim of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.

"The main point that the European leaders made on the call to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was that we welcome the fact that this fragile truce appears to be holding," a spokesman for Mr Cameron said.

"We have got to use this as a positive dynamic now to create some momentum behind the talks... so we can move from a truce into a more lasting durable peace with a political transition away from Assad."

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel met French President Francois Hollande in Paris and praised Russia's confirmation to abide by the truce.

"We have asked Russia to exert its influence to ensure this will also apply to the Assad regime," Mrs Merkel said.

There was disagreement between the EU leaders and Russia over Mr Assad's plans to hold parliamentary elections next month.

The Kremlin said this was "in accordance with the existing Syrian constitution and does not interfere with steps to build the peace process".

Mr Hollande said this was "not just provocative, but totally unrealistic".

In a statement on Thursday, the main anti-Assad rebel group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), spoke about "a continuation of deadly operations and war crimes which the regime and its allies have not ceased to commit".

On Friday HNC head Riad Hijab said that the truce had not been respected and that this jeopardised peace negotiations.

"We believe that the current conditions are not favourable for these negotiations, no aid has entered the besieged areas and detainees have not been released" he said.

He said the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, had carried out over 90 air strikes since the truce began.

Amnesty International has also accused Russian and Syrian government forces of appearing to have been deliberately and systematically targeting health facilities in the northern province of Aleppo in the past 12 weeks, ahead of the truce.

The human rights group reported that it had gathered "compelling evidence" of at least six deliberate attacks on hospitals, medical centres and clinics there.