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Fragile peace holds, Russia grounds planes in first day of Syrian truce

Relative calm prevailed in parts of Syria as most fighting between government forces and rebel groups stopped and Russia halted airstrikes on Saturday, the first day of a fragile cessation of hostilities that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “our best chance to reduce the brutal violence” in the country’s devastating five-year-long conflict.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad and many of Syria’s fractious rebel groups agreed to the deal, which was brokered by Russia and the U.S. and endorsed by the U.N.

The agreement stipulates that fighting should stop in order to allow aid deliveries to beleaguered civilians and create space for negotiations to end the country’s civil war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than 10 million people. Notably, it does not cover some powerful jihadist groups, including the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which launched several attacks Saturday.

Although the agreement, which took effect at midnight, has so far resulted in a marked reduction in violence, sporadic clashes continued between the parties involved.

Around 2:15 p.m. local time, a rebel leader told The Associated Press that government forces had committed several breaches  of the cease-fire.

Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush, commander of the U.S.-backed Fursan al-Haq Brigade, a rebel group based in northern Syria, said that his forces were observing the truce, but cautioned the government against further violations.

“If they continue with these violations we will be forced to retaliate accordingly,” he said.

Other rebel groups reported that government forces dropped several barrel bombs in the western province of Latakia.

Syria’s state-run news agency reported Saturday afternoon that rebel factions in Damascus suburbs had fired shells on residential areas of the capital, the first time the government accused opposition groups of violating the agreement.

The truce, the most ambitious international effort to stem the violence in Syria to date, reflects the Kremlin’s recent efforts to prop up Assad. Since September, Russian air strikes and ground forces have considerably improved the Syrian government’s military and diplomatic positions, stymieing the opposition’s long-held hope of toppling the regime by military force alone.

The Russian Defense Ministry promised to suspend air strikes in areas held by groups that have agreed to the cease-fire, and not to carry out any flights on Saturday.

“Given the entry into force of the U.N. Security Council resolution that supports the Russian-American agreements on a cease-fire, and to avoid any possible mistakes when carrying out strikes, Russian military planes, including long-range aviation, are not carrying out any flights over Syrian territory on Feb. 27,” the ministry said, according to Reuters.

Russia pledged to continue fighting the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, however, which some of the rebel groups party to the agreement fear will be used as an excuse to attack them. Russia has carried out previous airstrikes against U.S.-backed rebels under the pretense of fighting the Islamic State.

At a Friday night press conference in Geneva, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura expressed tentative hope for the nascent truce.

“Let’s pray that this works because frankly this is the best opportunity we can imagine the Syrian people has had for the last five years in order to see something better and hopefully something related to peace,” he said, according to a Reuters report.

De Mistura plans to restart peace talks on March 7, provided the truce holds.