Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) – The United Nations urged Syria’s government Thursday to “immediately” allow humanitarian aid into the country, after a fragile ceasefire was extended for 48 hours by Russia and the United States.
In a sign of renewed tensions between the two powers, who back opposing sides in the conflict, Moscow accused Washington of failing to meet its obligations under the truce agreement.
The UN, which has dozens of food trucks waiting at the Turkish border, warned that the “clock is ticking” to distribute desperately needed aid.
Washington said late Wednesday that US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had spoken and agreed to prolong the ceasefire which began on Monday.
They recognised that “despite sporadic reports of violence, as a whole the arrangement is holding and violence is, I’d say, significantly lower in comparison to previous days and weeks,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
But hours later Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov slammed Washington for what he called “rhetorical fog” intended “to hide the fact that it is not fulfilling its part of the obligations.”
Earlier Moscow, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had accused rebels of violating the truce 60 times since it came into force.
The ceasefire, agreed after marathon US-Russia talks in Geneva last week, is part of the latest bid to end a five-year conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people.
It aims to halt fighting between Assad’s forces and rebel factions, but does not include jihadists like the Islamic State group (IS).
The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Thursday that the truce was holding “by and large”.
But promised authorisation from Damascus for large-scale humanitarian convoys had not yet been received.
“This is something that is required to happen immediately,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.
– ‘Time is of the essence’ –
A key focus is rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo city where around 250,000 civilians are besieged by government forces.
The ceasefire extension “provides us a critical window of opportunity to assist the people in need in east Aleppo,” said a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, David Swanson.
“That being said, the clock is ticking and time is of the essence.”
He said 40 aid trucks carrying food supplies for 80,000 people were waiting on the Turkish border, but it was “highly unlikely” the first convoy of 20 trucks would set off on Thursday, given the situation on the ground.
The deal calls for the demilitarisation of the Castello Road route into the city, and Syrian troops had been set to begin withdrawing by 0600 GMT on Thursday.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Thursday that government forces and rebel fighters were still on the road and the army was not willing to pull back before opposition forces did so.
Eastern Aleppo is in desperate need of humanitarian aid after weeks of heavy fighting, and a government siege that has lasted most of the past two months, with no aid entering since early July.
Residents in Aleppo have welcomed the lull in the conflict that has displaced more than half their country’s population and destroyed their city, a former economic powerhouse.
But they expressed frustration about the delay in promised aid.
– Waiting for food, fuel –
“I don’t just want the renewal of the truce to be about stopping the bombing. I want them to allow in vegetables and fuel,” said 30-year-old Mustafa Morjan, in the Al-Zabdiya neighbourhood.
“How can we cook for and feed our children if we don’t have any fuel?”
Aleppo’s markets have little to sell besides locally grown aubergines, parsley and other herbs.
“We were dying from shelling before, and now we’re going to starve to death,” said Abu Ibrahim, 53.
The deal calls for the truce to be renewed every 48 hours, and for Washington and Moscow to begin unprecedented joint targeting of jihadists like IS and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front if it lasts a week.
There remains deep scepticism about whether the truce will hold.
The opposition has yet to officially sign on, and hours before the ceasefire began Assad said he was committed to recovering all of Syria.
If the deal does hold, it could open the door to new peace talks to resolve the conflict, with Russia saying the UN envoy could invite government and opposition representatives to new talks “at the very beginning of October”.