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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Syrian army declares temporary ceasefire ahead of talks

The two sides have held four previous rounds of talks in Kazakhstan since January in parallel to UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. Neither process has made much progress.

DAMASCUS // The Syrian military said Monday it has temporarily halted combat operations in the south ahead of Russian-sponsored ceasefire talks with the rebels.

The announcement came after a large Syrian rebel faction in the south said it would not attend the talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, because the government was not abiding by previous ceasefire agreements.

The two sides have held four previous rounds of talks in Kazakhstan since January in parallel to UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. Neither process has made much progress. A ceasefire declared in May, which is built around so-called "de-escalation zones," has been repeatedly violated.

The military announcement, carried on Syrian state media, did not link the present pause to the Astana talks, but said it would run until July 6. Delegates are expected to begin meeting with a UN mediator and other diplomats on July 4.

A spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of Free Syrian Army rebel groups, cast doubt on whether the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed allies would halt attacks on the front lines in Deraa and in Quneitra province.

"The Free Syrian Army are very distrustful of the regime's intentions in abiding by the ceasefire. It will be like the previous one," Maj Issam al Rayes told Reuters.

On June 17, the army announced a ceasefire that only affected fighting in the southern city of Deraa along the border with Israel.

The latest announcement extends the ceasefire from Deraa to the whole of southern Syria, including the southwestern Quneitra province near the border with Israel and Sweida province in the southeast.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meanwhile questioned the credibility of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, saying the inspectors had failed to visit key sites linked to a nerve gas attack that killed 89 people.

Mekdad dismissed an OPCW report released last week confirming the use of sarin gas on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April. He said the inspectors refused government invitations to visit the site of the attack in northern Syria or the military airport allegedly linked to it.

Syria insists it has never used chemical weapons.

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