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Violence Hits Syria's Idlib Province Ahead Of Truce, Then 'Relative Calm'

An explosion is seen following Russian air strikes in a village in Syria's Idlib Province ahead of a cease-fire on March 5.
An explosion is seen following Russian air strikes in a village in Syria's Idlib Province ahead of a cease-fire on March 5.

A Syrian rights watchdog and activists are reporting "relative calm" in Idlib Province after a cease-fire agreed to by the leaders of Turkey and Russia went into effect at midnight, although they said violence continued right up to the start of the truce.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in the early morning hours of March 6 that a cautious calm was prevailing on major fronts in Idlib.

An activist who lives in Idlib city also told the German dpa news agency that the situation was calm on all fronts around the war-torn city.

Shortly before the midnight cease-fire took effect, however, the observatory reported that air strikes by Russian warplanes and shelling by allied Syrian government forces had targeted the countryside of Idlib and areas near Hama.

It reported that two Turkish soldiers had been killed in shelling west of the city of Saraqeb.

Early on March 6, the Turkish Defense Ministry said its drones "neutralized" 21 Syrian regime troops in strikes hours before the cease-fire took effect in retaliation for the soldiers who were killed.

Following six hours of talks in Moscow on March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced they had agreed to a cease-fire to begin at midnight for northwestern Idlib Province, as they sought to ease tensions over a recent flare-up of violence.

The cease-fire is to be enforced along existing battle lines and envisages setting up a 12-kilometer-wide security corridor along the M4 highway. The corridor is to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops, starting on March 15.

The meeting came amid tensions in Idlib, Syria's last rebel stronghold, in recent weeks as Turkey launched an offensive against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Russia.

A previous cease-fire deal for Idlib quickly fell apart, with Moscow and Ankara accusing each other of failing to adhere to that agreement.

After his meeting with Erdogan in Moscow, Putin expressed hope that the new agreement will "serve as a good basis for ending fighting in the Idlib de-escalation zone and ending the suffering of the civilian population."

Erdogan said Turkey "reserves the right to retaliate with all its strength against any attack" by Syrian government forces.

On February 27, Ankara reported the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in an air strike blamed on Syria. That led to retaliation and, on March 1, Turkey killed 19 Syrian soldiers in drone strikes and shot down two government warplanes.

Turkey and Russia -- which back opposing sides in the conflict -- have avoided direct confrontation so far, but the latest incidents have led many observers to express concerns that NATO member Turkey and Russia could become embroiled in an armed conflict.

Ankara wants Assad's forces -- which have launched an assault on Idlib -- to pull back behind lines agreed under a 2018 deal brokered with Moscow.

Erdogan in late February told Putin that Russia should stand aside in Syria to let Turkey deal with Syrian government forces alone.

But Moscow, which has backed Assad with crucial air support in the past five years, has said the Syrian government should be able to assert full control over the country, which has been torn apart by civil war since 2011.

The United States has expressed strong support for Ankara, saying that "we stand by our NATO ally Turkey" and demanded that Syria and Russia end their "despicable" offensive in Idlib.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, Interfax, dpa, and AP
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