UN envoy to Syria brokers tentative holiday truce

The UN envoy to Syria says the government and some rebel groups have agreed to lay down their weapons during an upcoming four-day Muslim holiday.

Eid-al-Adha begins on Friday

More than 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Syria since the uprising began some 20 months ago. (Narciso Contreras/Associated Press)

The UN envoy to Syria says the government and some rebel groups have agreed to a truce during an upcoming four-day Muslim holiday.

The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, announces the Syria ceasefire agreement in Cairo on Wednesday. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)

Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday that he had brokered a temporary ceasefire during Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which begins Friday. He added that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will issue a statement on accepting a truce later "today or tomorrow."

The envoy had been pushing for this truce for about a week, and presented it as a "microscopic" step that would alleviate the relentless fighting temporarily and provide the basis for a longer ceasefire. However, Brahimi didn't elaborate on how such a truce would be monitored.

Brahimi told the Security Council by video conference from Cairo that he hopes a truce will allow humanitarian aid to reach war-stricken areas and start transition talks.

Backing up Brahimi's announcement, the UN Security Council released a statement Tuesday calling on all groups and in particular, the government as "the stronger party" to adhere to the envoy's truce plan.

The Security Council is also urging the Syrian government to allow "immediate, full and unimpeded access" of humanitarian personnel to those in need of assistance.

Syria's stalemated civil war, which has frequently spilled over Syria's borders, threatens to destabilize an already volatile region.

On Wednesday, more violence was reported across the country. Two car bombs killed at least eight bus passengers in the capital Damascus and 12 regime soldiers near a military checkpoint in the north, while regime airstrikes on villages near a besieged army base killed 12 civilians, activists said. They also posted a video showing at least 13 bodies laid out Wednesday in a room in a Damascus suburb, some of them women and children.

More than 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Syria since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began some 20 months ago, according to the United Nations. But some estimates put the death toll at more than 34,000 people since March last year.

Brahimi said on Wednesday that a cease-fire for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday could allow humanitarian aid to be delivered, especially to Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, a UN diplomat said after attending a closed-door UN security council meeting.

Regime's final position on truce to 'be issued on Thursday'

In Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi stressed Wednesday that the cessation of military operations during Eid al-Adha is still "being studied" by the General Command of the Army and the Syrian armed forces, and that "the final position on this matter will be issued on Thursday."

Abdelbaset Sieda, the head of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, told The Associated Press that he had little hope the truce would take hold.

He said opposition fighters have told him they are willing to adhere to it, but will respond if attacked by regime forces.   

"This regime, we don't trust it, because it is saying something and doing something else on the ground," Sieda said Wednesday in a phone interview from Stockholm, Sweden.

An al-Qaeda inspired Islamist group said it rejected the short ceasefire.

In a statement posted on militant websites Wednesday, Jabhat al-Nusra, rejected the truce, calling it a "filthy game" and saying it has no faith that Assad's regime would respect the ceasefire.

Syrian warplanes strike key village

Brahimi's proposal is far more modest than a six-point plan by his predecessor as Syrian envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. A ceasefire was the centerpiece of Annan's proposal and was to lead to talks on a peaceful transition.  

However, a truce never took hold and both sides violated their commitments, though Annan said at the time the regime was the main aggressor because it refused to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from population centers.

News of a truce during the four-day holiday comes amid fresh violence.

Free Syrian Army fighter practices during a training session outside Idlib in northern Syria. (Giath Taha/Reuters)

Syria regime warplanes struck the village of Mar Shureen near a strategic rebel-held town in the country's north Wednesday, killing five members of an extended family, activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says government aircraft hit Mar Shureen village on Wednesday morning.

The village is located just outside the town of Maaret al-Numan, about 1 1/2 kilometres from a Syrian military camp that troops and rebels have been fighting over for several days.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that government aircraft hit the village in the morning hours. The dead include a father and his two sons, aged 10 and 24, as well as a two other relatives, a woman and a young man, Abdul-Rahman said. His group relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground.

Rebels starving out government soldiers

Opposition fighters seized Maaret al-Numan, which lies along the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus, earlier this month, disrupting the ability of Assad's army to send supplies and reinforcements to the northwest where troops are bogged down in a stalemate with the rebels in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

At least 10 people were killed and 13 were injured when an artillery shell landed near a bakery in Aleppo, Abdul-Rahman said.

Meanwhile, some opposition fighters are using new tactics to turn the conflict their way.

In Idlib province, near the Turkish-Syrian border, rebel fighters are trying to starve out government forces holed up in small bases and encampments by cutting off the flow of supplies and food, according to the CBC's Derek Stoffel.

Witnesses tell the CBC that it is working. Opposition fighters are announcing that the soldiers will not be killed if they defect, and several of the troops are walking out with their hands up.

"This tactic is apparently more successful than what the rebels have been trying to do over recent weeks, ambushing government convoys or engaging in firefights… As a result, the rebels say they are now closer to taking control of Idlib province," Stoffel reported from Gaziantep, Turkey.

With files from the CBC's Derek Stoffel