Russia says ‘humanitarian’ truce in Syria will depend on rebels

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Moscow (AFP) – The Kremlin on Tuesday said the future of a ceasefire in a war-ravaged enclave near Damascus will depend on the rebels holed up there, as the Russian military accused the fighters of violating a “humanitarian pause” called by Moscow.

“It will depend on how the terrorist groups behave, whether they will open fire, whether provocations from them will continue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists when asked whether a daily five-hour pause in fighting will increase.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered a daily “pause” from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm to evacuate civilians from the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, following a UN Security Council weekend vote to approve a 30-day truce.

But the United Nations said Tuesday that fighting has raged on in the area despite the truce, making relief operations impossible.

Russia says the main forces in Eastern Ghouta, such as Islamist groups Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, are terrorist groups who do not fall under the terms of the ceasefire.

These groups, alongside the Faylaq al-Rahman faction, on Tuesday said in a letter to the UN that they would be willing to expel jihadist fighters from Eastern Ghouta once the truce takes effect.

– Five hours ‘not enough’ –

“We shall see in practice whether the pleas by the three illegal armed groups… to carry out the UNSC resolution correspond with their intentions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday during a joint press conference with French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Despite ongoing clashes and one civilian death in Eastern Ghouta, the levels of violence were significantly lower during the five-hour pause than at any point since February 18, when the regime began its assault in the region.

But the five-hour window is not enough, Le Drian said.

“The first five hours of the truce is real progress. We support it but it is just one step,” he said in Moscow.

Moscow accused the rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta of not allowing civilians to flee through a Syrian government checkpoint.

“There is intense fire from the militants and not a single civilian has come out,” General Viktor Pankov told Russian agencies.

Another Russian officer at the scene, Vladimir Zolotukhin, told Russian media Tuesday that fighters in Eastern Ghouta have fired 22 times on Damascus over the last 24 hours.

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