Syria Truce Takes Hold despite Limited Violations

Fighting subsided across much of Syria Saturday as the first major ceasefire of the devastating, five-year war appeared to broadly hold despite sporadic breaches in parts of the battle-scarred country.

The truce, brokered by Washington and Moscow, is seen as a crucial step towards ending a conflict that has claimed 270,000 lives and displaced more than half the population.

It faces formidable challenges including the exclusion of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and al-Qaida's Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front, which control large parts of the country.

"Honestly, I was surprised that the calm lasted through the night," said Ammar al-Rai, a 22-year-old medical student in Damascus.

"I think this is the first time we've woken up without the sound of shelling."

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said peace talks would resume on March 7 if the ceasefire prevails and more aid is delivered -- a key sticking point in negotiations.

A special international task force, co-chaired by Moscow and Washington, was due to meet behind closed doors in Geneva on Saturday to monitor the truce.

De Mistura said it was important that any incidents are "quickly brought under control" and a military response should be the "last resort".

Russia, which has waged nearly five months of intense air strikes against rebels in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it had halted bombing in all areas covered by the truce.

Moscow has vowed to keep striking IS, Al-Nusra and other "terrorist groups", but said it would ground all its warplanes in the Syria campaign on the first day of the truce to avoid potential "mistakes".

- 'First chance' for peace -

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the lull in fighting was "the first chance to put an end to violence on the ground and should not be missed".

"If it holds, it will create the conditions for full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access throughout Syria," she added.

Among the limited ceasefire breaches, state media said "terrorist groups" fired a number of shells on Damascus but caused no casualties.

Rebels also accused the government of intermittent "truce violations" in parts of the country.

In Aleppo, Syria's second city, two people were killed and four wounded when shells hit the majority-Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsud, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

Syrian state media said one person was killed by sniper fire in the same district.

Aleppo city is now almost completely encircled by pro-regime troops after a massive Russian-backed offensive that has caused tens of thousands to flee in recent weeks.

But on Saturday, children played in parks.

"I hope the truce continues even for a limited time so we can get back part of our old lives from before the war," said Abu Nadim, a father of four.

Jihadists attacked the border town of Tal Abyad in Raqa province, sparking clashes that killed at least 45 IS members, 20 Kurdish militia fighters and two civilians, the Observatory said.

U.S.-led coalition warplanes launched at least 10 air strikes to try to drive back the jihadists, the monitor reported.

Twin suicide bombings meanwhile killed six people outside the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province, where IS is present, state news agency SANA said.

- Skepticism remains -

The complexities of a conflict which escalated from anti-government protests into a full-blown war drawing in rival world powers make brokering a lasting halt to the fighting a huge challenge.

Assad has been bolstered by the support of Russia and Iran while the West, Turkey and Gulf states back rebel groups.

"The pressure being placed by Russia and the U.S. on regional actors is such that many of these regional actors can't reject the political process entirely," said Firas Abi Ali, an analyst for IHS Country Risk in London.

"This is putting them in a bind where they're compelled to behave as if they're part of the process regardless of what they actually want from it."

Syria's top opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said Friday that 97 opposition factions had agreed to respect the truce, for two weeks initially.

In a particularly encouraging sign, a commander in the hardline Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham said his group -- allied with Al-Nusra -- had not conducted any military operations since the truce started.

"But the ceasefire is stillborn, because it began with violations from the regime. It will be very difficult for the ceasefire to hold," Hussam Salameh warned.

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