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Russia halts all Syria bombing sorties to avoid 'mistakes'
by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) Feb 27, 2016

Syria ceasefire task force to meet Saturday: UN envoy
Geneva (AFP) Feb 27, 2016 - A special task force will meet in Geneva Saturday to evaluate how a fledgling Syrian ceasefire is holding, the UN envoy said, adding that a system had been created to deal with violations.

Shortly after a landmark truce came into effect at midnight, Staffan de Mistura said initial reports indicated the fighting appeared to have "calmed down", although one incident was under investigation.

The task force created by the 17-nation International Syria Support Group would meet to "monitor and check" what has been happening on the ground, he said in Geneva.

De Mistura said the group would examine "any incidents that might have been taking place and what... needs to be done in order to contain them".

"The important point... is if (any) incidents will be quickly brought under control and contained. That is going to be the test," he stressed.

The US and Russian co-chairs of the task force evaluating the ceasefire have "established separate operation centres in Moscow, in Washington DC, Latakia and Amman," alongside a 24/7 UN operation centre in Geneva.

De Mistura said the centres would "collect information on infringements" but, while the UN would help with analysis, "the two co-chairs have the primary task of addressing cases of non-compliance".

It would seek to deal with any infractions through diplomatic channels, he said, adding that "a military response should be... the last resort".

The ceasefire agreement is considered the biggest diplomatic push yet to help end Syria's five-year war, but it has been plagued by doubts after previous peace efforts failed.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and 97 armed groups had signed up for the deal, which allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and other jihadists.

De Mistura said he planned to call a new round of Syria peace talks starting on March 7 and lasting initially for three weeks.

The latest effort at negotiations were suspended earlier this month without ever really getting started, in the face of relentless bombing by regime forces and key Damascus backer Russia.

But de Mistura said the efforts to seal a ceasefire and increasing humanitarian aid since then had changed the dynamic.

"The resumption of the talks should be much more concrete," he said.

The Russian military said its warplanes suspended all sorties over Syria on Saturday in line with a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and the United States, to avoid any "bombing mistakes".

The Russian and American militaries also exchanged maps of Syria, while fighting stopped in 34 Syrian settlements, the military said.

"Russia's air force fully halted bombing in the green zone," a senior representative of the General Staff, Sergei Rudskoi, told reporters, referring to the areas and armed groups that expressed interest in observing the ceasefire deal.

He added that "on February 27, sorties of the Russian aviation in Syria including long-range aviation, are not being carried out".

He said this was being done to rule out "any possible bombing mistakes" and in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution.

A ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow and Washington called for the cessation of hostilities from 2200 GMT Friday between Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad's forces and opposition groups.

The deal does not however include the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front jihadists.

Rudskoi said 17 armed groups -- those who fight alongside regime forces or independently -- contacted Russia's ceasefire coordination centre at the Hmeimim airbase and pledged to honour the ceasefire deal.

He also said that within the framework of the ceasefire deal the Russian and US militaries exchanged maps of Syria.

- 'In full control' -

Rudskoi said more than 6,000 fighters had joined the truce deal, saying the Russians handed their lists to the US counterparts.

He added that the Americans also received a list of 74 settlements and areas which should not be bombed.

"During consultations we received a similar map prepared by the American side," Rudskoi said.

"We've made the first step on the path to halting fighting on Syrian soil," he added.

"We are honouring an obligation to observe the ceasefire in full. However it does not mean that ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists can breathe a sigh of relief," he said, referring to the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front by other names.

"We are in full control of the situation across the whole of Syria," he said, adding that Russian forces were using at least 70 drones and space surveillance for monitoring purposes.

Speaking by video link from the Hmeimim airbase, Sergei Kuralenko, head of Russia's coordination centre in Syria, said fighting had stopped in 34 Syrian settlements.

"Work to rebuild Syria is being carried out round the clock," he said, adding that humanitarian aid was being sent to the areas where the ceasefires have taken hold.

Over the past two days, 2.5 tonnes of food supplies have been sent to two settlements in the provinces of Homs and Latakia, Kuralenko added.

Moscow launched a bombing campaign in Syria in September, saying it needed to target jihadists before they cross into Russia, but the West has accused it of targeting moderate rebels.

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