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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

On Syrian Cease-fire's Eve, Terrorist Fight Continues

by VOA News February 26, 2016

As a cease-fire deadline looms in Syria, Russian warplanes on Friday continued bombing what the Kremlin calls 'terrorist organizations' amid reports that it has intensified attacks on rebel strongholds.

The truce, brokered by the United States and Russia, is scheduled to take effect at midnight Damascus time (2200 GMT). The Syrian opposition's umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee, said in a statement that 97 groups have committed to observing the cease-fire.

But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights charged that Russia has accelerated its attacks on rebels opposed to the Syrian government. The airstrikes were 'more intense than usual,' the Agence France-Presse news group reported. Targets include areas east of Damascus, northern Homs province and part of Aleppo province.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as responding that 'the Russian air force is certainly continuing its operations in Syria' against 'terrorist organizations' and questioned the observatory group's credibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also told reporters Friday that Russia plans to continue its bombing campaign against Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front terror groups in Syria. He said the U.N. agreement does not apply to groups the United Nations has designated as terrorist organizations. Neither IS nor al-Nusra is party to the cease-fire.

UN support

The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote on a resolution endorsing the cessation of hostilities later Friday, and it is expected the resolution will be adopted.

A draft of the text says that the council "demands" the cessation begin at 00:00 Damascus time on Saturday. It says parties that have "accepted and committed to abide by the Terms of the Cessation of Hostilities" are now parties to it and demands that they fulfill their commitments. It also reaffirms support for political talks facilitated by the United Nations to end the war.

Additionally, the draft resolution calls on the parties to "immediately" allow humanitarian aid workers unhindered and safe access to all areas of Syria.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura will update the council Friday on the cessation of hostilities and his plans to restart peace talks. He will brief from Geneva via a video link.

Obama reiterates U.S. backing

U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States will do everything it can to make the agreement hold.

Ending the conflicts in Syria and Iraq is instrumental to defeating the Islamic State terrorist network, he said Thursday after meeting with top security officials at the State Department.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is 'one of the most complex the world has seen in recent times,' Obama said, noting that the militant Islamic State group 'is entrenched, including in urban areas, using civilians as human shields.' He also said there are indications that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria is slowing, making it harder for the militants to replenish their ranks.

Lavrov disdains 'Plan B'

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted a meeting in Moscow of the Russian-Arab Cooperation forum, where he pledged that the gathering would focus on ending the conflict in Syria.

Lavrov also said the cease-fire's success depended in part on the U.S.-led coalition refraining from talking about 'some sort of Plan B, about preparing a ground operation, about the creation of some sort of useless buffer zone,' AFP reported.

If Russia and the Syrian government don't respect the cease-fire agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that Washington would consider a 'Plan B.'

Lavrov voiced concern that Syria's main opposition group said it would honor the cease-fire only for two weeks.

'The Russian-American initiative does not foresee any preliminary conditions and qualifications,' AFP quoted Lavrov as saying. The Russian official also criticized Obama for again saying Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down to ensure a lasting peace.

Military intensification

In recent months, the intensification effort against Islamic State has included using additional U.S. special expeditionary forces to carry out raids, free hostages, capture IS leaders and gather intelligence.

The U.S. has said the fighting in Syria between troops loyal to al-Assad and rebels fighting to oust him has allowed Islamic State to flourish amid the chaos and instability.

The White House has accused Putin of fueling the civil war by helping to prop up the Assad government with airstrikes targeting opposition rebels.

The cessation agreement calls for an end to attacks and aerial bombardment and for the flow of humanitarian aid to areas under siege.

'A lot of that is going to depend on whether the Syrian regime, Russia and their allies live up to their commitments,' Obama said Thursday. 'The coming days will be critical, and the world will be watching.'

VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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