Shelling shows Syria truce shaky; Israel says Assad still waging gas attacks


Artillery shells struck near the main street of a Syrian village controlled by the government on Tuesday, sending international reporters diving for cover and highlighting the fragility of a partial cease-fire that both sides in the civil war say has been repeatedly violated.

The blasts that shook Kinsibba, near the Turkish border, came as the journalists were touring the village under Russian military escort. No one was wounded by the artillery, but some suffered minor cuts as they ran for cover or threw themselves to the ground.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov, who was on the trip, said the shells came from positions held by the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, which along with the Islamic State group is excluded from the cease-fire that began Saturday.

The U.S. and Russian-brokered “cessation of hostilities” has brought the first wide-scale reduction in violence seen in Syria’s five-year civil war, but has been rattled by alleged violations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that any faction that repeatedly violates the cease-fire can be attacked.

The cease-fire is 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 office of the U.N. envoy for Syria said he has pushed back the planned resumption of talks between the government and the opposition to March 9 for “logistical and practical” reasons. Staffan de Mistura had earlier said the talks — which last broke down in early February after just a few days — would resume March 7.

Syrian President Bashar Assad meanwhile told Germany’s ARD television that moderate rebels who lay down their arms can expect “full amnesty.” But it was unclear whether any rebels would take him up on such an offer after years of civil war, mass detentions and widespread allegations of severe human rights violations by his government.

Assad also said convoys from Turkey have been supplying weapons to the insurgents. Turkey is one of the leading backers of those fighting to end the Assad family’s four-decade rule. The Syrian government has received crucial support from both Russia and Iran.

In Kinsibba, which was seized in a recent government offensive, the reporters were talking to local residents when the first shell struck a hillside a few hundred meters (yards) away. Russian officers yelled at the journalists to lie down, and they ducked as the shelling drew closer with a series of loud thuds. A Russian armored personnel carrier rushed forward to screen the reporters from direct hits.

The head of Russia’s coordination center for the Syrian crisis, Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying eight shells hit and that four journalists, from Russia, Canada, China and Bulgaria, sustained light injuries.

More shells landed in the area just after the reporters left, killing three Syrian troops and wounding eight others, said Konashenkov, the Russian military spokesman.

He said Russia has delivered around 580 tons of food aid to government-held areas in recent weeks. He also said that the Russian coordination center and a similar U.S. center in Amman have been in close contact, with the Russians calling the Americans several times a day to exchange information about the cease-fire.

The cease-fire has remained fragile, however, with violations reported in many areas and the government and opposition trading blame. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday the cease-fire has been violated 15 times in the past 24 hours.

Also Tuesday, Syrian state news agency SANA said insurgents fired seven shells at government-held neighborhoods and the airport in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began in March 2011.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, opposition groups that monitor the conflict, said government forces shelled rebel-held parts of the city.

The Observatory and other opposition activists also said five people were killed and more than 15 wounded when rockets slammed into two villages in the rebel-held northern province of Idlib.

Earlier in the day, the reporters had visited the northern village of Ghunaymiyah, near Kinsibba, where residents recently began returning to their homes after government forces drove out Nusra Front fighters last month. Most of the buildings were concrete shells, with windows and doors missing.

One resident, Musa Magardish, stood in shock in front of his ruined home. “I don’t have any money for rebuilding my house, and I have no idea how I can do it,” he said.

“Everything is broken, everything is burned,” said 66-year-old Araksi Sarko, who said the Nusra fighters who had until recently occupied the city were “animals.”

At a village church damaged in the fighting, a few people gathered to clean up shards of glass and pieces of concrete littering the floor. Then they prayed.

One of the parishioners, Farah Arijan, said Nusra Front militants badly damaged the church when they captured the village in 2012. “They also killed many of our people,” he said. “One woman was killed when she was trying to flee.”

Israel on Tuesday accused the Syrian government forces of using chemical weapons against civilians since the start of the cease-fire aimed at preparing the way for an end to the five-year civil war.

The truce, sponsored by Russia and the United States, began on Saturday and has been dogged by opposition charges of noncompliance by Damascus — something President Bashar Assad has denied. It does not apply to missions against jihadi rebels.

“The Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and lately have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed cease-fire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a speech to a conference organized by the New Tech military and aviation group in Airport City, near Tel Aviv. He did not provide further details.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Syria truce efforts on Sunday but said his country might still carry out attacks in the neighboring Arab state to thwart any threats to its security.

A fact-finding mission of the global chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) concluded in 2014 that the use of chlorine gas has been “systematic” in the Syrian civil war, even after the country surrendered its stockpile of toxic weapons.

Both sides have denied using chlorine “barrel” bombs, which the OPCW said are dropped out of helicopters. The Syrian air force is the only party in the conflict known to have helicopters.

A joint mission by the United Nations and the OPCW is currently investigating who is responsible for the chemical attacks.