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Truce takes hold in Aleppo, but fighting elsewhere in Syria (Update 4)

A man holds the hand of a girl as they rush out after rebels bombarded government-held areas of Aleppo earlier this week

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
A cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by Russia and the United States brought a measure of relief to the battered Syrian city of Aleppo on Thursday but President Bashar al-Assad said he still sought a total, crushing victory over rebel forces.

Syrian state media said the army would abide by a “regime of calm” in the city that came into effect at 1 a.m. (2200 GMT on Wednesday) for 48 hours, and relative calm prevailed on Thursday morning after two weeks of death and destruction.

The army blamed Islamist insurgents for violating the agreement overnight by what it called indiscriminate shelling of some government-held residential areas of divided Aleppo. But residents said the violence had eased by morning and more shops had opened up.

Elsewhere in Syria, fighting persisted. Islamic State militants captured the Shaer gas field in eastern Syria on Thursday, the first gain for the hardline jihadists in the Palmyra desert area since they lost the ancient city in March, according to rebel sources and a monitor..

Assad said he would accept nothing less than an outright victory against rebels in Aleppo and across Syria, state media reported.

In a telegram sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin thanking Moscow for its military support, Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory” and “crushing the aggression” in its fight against the rebels.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one person was killed in rebel shelling overnight of the Midan neighbourhood on the government side of Aleppo, which was Syria’s commercial hub and largest city before the war.

Rockets also hit the New Aleppo district, state media said.

But a resident of the rebel-held eastern part of the city said that although warplanes flew overnight, there were none of the intense raids seen during the past 10 days of air strikes.

People in several districts ventured out onto the streets where more shops than normal had opened, the resident of al Shaar neighbourhood said.

Another resident said civilians in several districts sensed a general trend towards calm.

“From last night it was positive and my wife went out to shop and shops opened and people breathed. We did not hear the shelling and bombing we had gotten accustomed to,” Sameh
Tutunji, a merchant said.

A rebel source also said that despite intermittent firing across the city’s main front lines, fighting had subsided and no army shelling of residential areas had been heard.

The only intense fighting reported was in the southern Aleppo countryside near the town of Khan Touman, where Syria’s al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front is dug in close to where Iranian-backed militias maintain a stronghold, a rebel source said.

Rebels also said government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held Dahyat al-Rashdeen al Junobi, northwest of Aleppo,
and near the Jamiyat al Zahraa area, which saw a rebel ground assault pushed back on Wednesday.

The recent surge in bloodshed in Aleppo had wrecked the first major cessation of hostilities agreement of the five-year-old war, sponsored by Washington and Moscow, backers of the rival sides, which had held since February.

A spokesman for the mainstream opposition said the Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee supported the deal but wanted the truce to cover all of Syria, not just Aleppo. It accused the government of violating it.

Nusra and the Islamic State fighters are not included in any U.N.- brokered deal for a cessation of hostilities.

In other areas of Syrian, at least six people were killed and scores wounded in a village in the eastern Homs countryside, where Islamic State militants operate, when a suicide bomber blew himself up, state media said.

Amaq, an IS-affiliated news agency, said Islamic State militants had taken over the Shaer gas field and its facility in Palmyra, killing at least 30 Syrian troops stationed there and seizing heavy weapons, tanks and missiles.

Russian war jets were also reported to have struck militant hideouts in the town of Sukhna in the same Palmyra desert area.

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