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Syrian Army Declares 48-Hour Truce After Intense Fighting In Aleppo

The Syrian army says it will apply a 48-hour truce to the city of Aleppo, in the north of the country, after days of intense fighting with rebel forces.

The truce comes into effect at 1 a.m. local time on Thursday, according to the Syrian state news wire SANA.

But the rebels are "rejecting that Syria's nationwide truce be broken down into localized cease-fires," NPR's Alison Meuse tells our Newscast unit. She adds: "A spokesman for one U.S.-backed rebel group says they're still waiting for the regime to uphold its commitments to release political detainees and allow aid to besieged areas."

Earlier on Wednesday, the U.S. said it was working with Russia to restore a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, according to the State Department.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that since this morning, there's been an "overall decrease in violence" despite "reports of continued fighting in some locations."

You might remember that back in February, Russia, the U.S. and other world powers reached a cessation-of-hostilities agreement. Neither the Syrian government nor the rebels were party to it — as we reported, it was an agreement for their powerful international backers to encourage their proxies to stop fighting. It didn't include areas controlled by the Islamic State or other groups described as terrorists, such as the al-Nusra Front.

February's cessation-of-hostilities agreement worked to "some extent," according to Jan Egeland, an adviser to the U.N.'s special envoy for Syria. He told Morning Edition earlier Wednesday that the primary purpose of the agreement was to deliver badly needed humanitarian aid to besieged areas — and last month, they were able to reach 50-60 percent of the 480,000 people in besieged areas.

But the fragile truce rapidly unraveled, he says, especially in Aleppo. That led to "frantic" diplomatic efforts that apparently led to Wednesday's announcement.

As Weekend Edition Saturday reported, "in just 48 hours [last] week, an average of one Syrian has been killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian has been wounded every 13 minutes." Last week, an airstrike on an Aleppo hospital on the rebel side run by Doctors Without Borders killed at least 50 people. Days later, a government hospital in Aleppo was reportedly hit by rocket fire.

"Aleppo is burning," Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. "The city's streets run red with our people's blood as regime airstrikes are burning Aleppo to the ground. Innocent civilians are being massacred, and they must be protected."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the latest round of violence is the worst the area has seen this year, according to Reuters. Quoting the observatory, the wire service says "279 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by bombardment since April 22 — 155 of them in opposition-held areas and 124 in government-held districts."

Now, NPR's Michele Kelemen reports to our Newscast unit that while Toner is "urging Russia to put pressure on the Syrian government, [he] says the U.S. will use its influence with opponents of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad." Toner adds that "one problem in Aleppo has been the 'intermingling' of moderate rebels and those linked to al-Qaida."

Earlier this week Morning Edition spoke with New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh, who recently visited Aleppo. He described scenes of devastation and said residents "don't see an easy way out." Here's more from Declan:

"You know, the peace talks that are going on in Geneva and other negotiations that may be taking place in Russia or in America — many people I spoke to, they seem to be vaguely aware of them. They were certainly grateful to some degree that the cease-fire had taken place. But generally, people are quite cynical.

"Five years of war has really ground down people's hope. ... People's ability to see a way out of this has become extremely diminished."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.