A rocket and mortar barrage struck a government-controlled neighborhood in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo Sunday, killing 13 civilians and wounding 40, the government and an opposition group said.
State-run news agency SANA said the attack by “terrorists” occurred in the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, which has been subjected to insurgent shelling for days despite a shaky US and Russian-brokered cessation of hostilities that took effect Feb. 27.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 70 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Sheikh Maqsoud and reported nine civilians killed, including four children, and 30 wounded.
The Observatory said the shells were fired by insurgents, including the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria the Nusra Front. That group and its rival, Daesh (ISIS), are excluded from the cessation deal. The Observatory also reported that the regions of Syria covered by the cessation of hostilities enjoyed the “calmest day” since the deal started, a monitor said.
“Sunday was the calmest day since the cease-fire came into effect” on Feb. 27, Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of Observatory, told AFP, adding that the exceptions were the attacks on Aleppo.
Heavy bombardment also struck territory held by Nusra Front and Daesh.
On the ground, meanwhile, media outlets close to the regime reported that the Syrian army was advancing toward Palmyra amid heavy clashes with Daesh fighters.
Fighting between Assad forces and Daesh also took place near the city of Al-Qaryatayn in eastern Aleppo countryside, where the regime seized Al-Sater al-Kabir hill, according to the Hezbollah-linked Media War Center.
The cessation of hostilities has brought a sharp drop in violence to much of Syria and has largely held despite sporadic violations and mutual accusations of breaches.
The U.S. and Russia are now looking to convince the two sides to return to UN-brokered peace negotiations in Geneva next week.
Abdel-Rahman said the average number of civilian deaths a day has fallen by 90 percent since the deal came into force nine days ago, with an 80 percent decline among soldiers and rebel forces.
In Moscow, the Defense Ministry reported 15 violations during the previous 24 hours, compared with nine Saturday and 27 the day before.
Four people were wounded in shelling by unidentified forces of residential areas and loyalist positions in the Damascus area, it said.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said that peace talks between rebels and the Syrian regime are to resume on March 10.
While some delegates are expected to arrive in Geneva on March 9, others are not expected until March 11 or even 14 because of “problems with hotel reservations,” De Mistura said.
He said preparatory meetings will be held ahead of “in-depth discussions separately” which each faction.
In a telephone conversation Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave “an overall positive assessment of the progress toward securing the cease-fire in Syria, which is being generally observed and already has led to a sharp decrease in the level of violence,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Although much less aid than anticipated has gone into besieged areas since the cessation of hostilities started, the diplomats noted “significant improvement” in humanitarian access. They also welcomed “the sharp decline in violence” and warned against “any delay in starting the process” of negotiations.
A spokesman for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, Saturday told AFP it has still not decided whether to attend.
“The HNC has not taken a decision yet,” Monzer Makhos said. “We are waiting for progress on the humanitarian issue and respect for the cease-fire. What has happened so far is not enough for us to participate.”Since the failure of a first round of peace talks in 2014, the main sticking point in the negotiations has been the fate of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Hayat reported de Mistura as saying a transition process would include “first, talks on a new government, second a new constitution and third parliamentary and presidential polls within the next 18 months.”
The envoy said Friday that the Syrian people, not foreigners, should decide Assad’s fate. But key opposition backer Riyadh Saturday called for Assad to step down at the start of any transition. “Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Paris.
On the sequence of events, Jubeir said: “There is a transitional body, power shifts from Assad to the transitional body, and then he goes.” After that “the transitional body drafts a constitution, prepares for elections. Some are arguing that no, Bashar leaves at the elections in 18 months, that’s not how we think.” Jubeir said Syria’s opposition “can’t go into talks empty-handed.”
Also Saturday, the Istanbul-based opposition Syrian National Coalition elected Anas al-Abde as its new leader.
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