Mar 3, 2016 12:10 AM

Syrian villagers hope for calm as Russia keeps eye on truce

The Associated Press

MAARZAF, Syria (AP) Just days into a U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire, many residents in a pro-government Syrian village long engulfed in fierce fighting in a central province expressed hope Wednesday that the truce will prevail and that a sense of normalcy could soon return.

But the cease-fire is partial and though as such it has mostly held across the war-wrecked nation, it excludes the Islamic State group as well as Syria's al-Qaida branch, known as the Nusra Front, and other militant factions that the United Nations considers terrorist organizations.

In a stark reflection of those limitations, a car bomb killed 18 commanders of a U.S.-backed rebel group on Wednesday, a serious blow to the rebels, while Syrian Kurdish-led forces took strategic ground in Aleppo province from the Nusra Front, in a surprise offensive aimed at encircling the provincial capital.

Russia's Defense Ministry, in a bid to secure the cease-fire, said it has set up a coordination center that includes several dozen officers who visit opposition groups and local communities to help negotiate local truce deals.

On a trip to central Syria organized by the Russian government Wednesday, an Associated Press team saw one such document being signed in the village of Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the city of Hama, the provincial capital.

While the city of Hama has been firmly under the Syrian government control throughout the five-year conflict, other parts of Hama province have seen intense fighting.

The town of Salamiyeh, on the northern edge of the province, has been a front line between government forces and Islamic State fighters. The Syrian army has been making significant advances in the area, recently securing the desert highway from Salamiyeh to the village of Athriya on the border of Raqqa province, the main IS stronghold, and linking that road to the Salamiyeh-Khanaser-Aleppo road.

That gives the government control over a strategic road linking the three provinces together.

Wednesday's signing in the village of Maarzaf was attended by Sheikh Ahmad Mubarak, a respected local leader whose influence extends across most of Hama province, and hundreds of villagers gathered at the main square.

As part of the process, local leaders sign declarations pledging to abide by the truce and bow to the government control over their territories in exchange for security guarantees and other assistance. The Russian military said about 30 towns and villages already have signed such documents.

"The Syrian people need peace," said Sheikh Mubarak, whose private militia has apparently fought alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's army in Hama. He praised Russia's role in the cease-fire but also expressed hope it would pave way for the release of local residents held in government prisons.

On Wednesday, as the journalists visited, Russian military trucks also delivered food aid to the villagers, and a military medic came to inspect and treat some elderly patients.

"We all hope it will help make the area safer," villager Ali Aty Muhammad said of the deal. "We are all very thankful to Russia."

Syrian soldier Saliba Shaaman was toting his assault rifle, a grenade launcher slung over his shoulder, as he observed the village happening.

"The cease-fire is a very good thing," he said, adding that he had just returned from the front lines near the city of Aleppo.

However, such scenes may seem to clash with reality, where accusations of violations by all sides in the civil war threaten to derail the cease-fire. Several Syrian opposition activists said they have no knowledge of local truce declarations mediated by Russia.

In southern Syria, a car bomb targeted a meeting of commanders of a U.S.-backed moderate rebel group, killing 18, including the faction's top commander. Dozens were wounded in Wednesday's blast in Quneitra province.

A Quneitra-based opposition activist who goes by the name of Abu Omar al-Golani said that 20 fighters were killed in the blast, among them the commander of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, Capt. Abu Hamza al-Naimi.

He said the blast went off when several commanders were meeting at the group's office in the town of Asheh.

The Syria Revolutionaries Front is a moderate rebel group that was mostly crushed in northern Syria in late 2014 by the Nusra Front.

An opposition activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to leak secret information, said the rebel faction was planning to attack Nusra Front in southern Syria.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the car bombing, which also caused widespread damage in the area.

Meanwhile, in the northern province of Aleppo, a Kurdish-led fighting alliance took strategic ground from the Nusra Front and its allies.

The U.S. and Russian-brokered "cessation of hostilities," which came into effect early Saturday, has brought the first wide-scale reduction in violence seen in Syria's five-year civil war, but has been rattled by alleged violations. It's intended to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks to end the conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the country's population.

The Russian military says it has mostly grounded its warplanes in Syria, saying it wants to avoid possible mistakes.

In neighboring Lebanon, thousands of supporters of the militant Hezbollah group attended the funeral Wednesday of senior military commander Ali Fayyad, who was killed while fighting against IS in Aleppo province last week. The funeral was held in Fayyad's southern hometown of Ansar.

Back in the Syrian village of Maarzaf, a group of heavily-armed troops stood next to their SUV, adorned with big portraits of Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, as Russian military trucks distributed food aid.

One of the soldiers, Hassan Muhammad, who said he fought both the IS and Nusra Front, said he counts on help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to help though he also spoke proudly about the Syrian army's performance.

"We have been fighting for five years, and we have proven our worth by holding out," he said.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.


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