NEW: Peace talks will resume March 9 in Switzerland, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura says
NEW: Syria's president says the ceasefire agreement was violated in the first hour, but insists he has shown restraint
Russian state news: Shelling hits near group of foreign journalists, a few of whom suffer minor injuries
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he and his government have made every effort to keep the peace in the days after a far-reaching cessation of hostilities agreement took effect, despite others violating it within the first hour.
But the opposition says the regime is responsible for “repeated violations” of the partial truce.
In an interview with German broadcaster ARD, Assad said his forces haven’t lashed back in order to give the truce a chance to survive – but that restraint won’t necessarily last forever.
“That’s what we can do, but at the end everything has a limit,” Assad said, according to an account of the ARD interview published Tuesday by Syria’s official SANA news agency. “It depends on the other side.”
Still, for all the continued accusations, at least the tenuous peace process hasn’t fallen apart.
In fact, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Syrian peace talks will resume March 9 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Kerry to Assad: ‘Show some measure of decency’
The partial truce involving Syria’s government and numerous rebel groups – but not terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Nusra Front, which have been responsible for some of the worst carnage – took effect Friday.
But members of the so-called moderate opposition accused Syria and its allies of “repeated violations,” sending a letter to the United Nations and all the members of the International Syria Support Group – except for Syria’s allies Russia and Iran – to that effect.
That letter from the opposition High Negotiations Committee noted that one of the primary goals of the “temporary truce” is “to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.”
But that’s not happening as much as it should, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, because Assad’s government continues “to drag its feet” in providing permits for the aid to get through.
“We call on the Assad regime to, at least in a moment of cessation of hostilities, try to show some measure of decency, if that is even possible,” Kerry said Monday during a news conference in Washington with his German counterpart, echoing U.N. hopes that aid can reach another 150,000 people this week and 1.7 million by the end of March.
“And our hope is that they will also stop their people, their troops and their officials who get in the way or manage these shipments, from actually putting their hands into the shipments and taking out medicine or taking out other preferred items simply to keep for themselves,” he said.
Foreign journalists shelled near Turkey
While it’s nowhere near the level seen at other times during Syria’s brutal five-year war, some violence persists despite the truce agreement.
The website of the state-run SANA news agency features news of Syrian military exploits, but describes airstrikes “killing … ISIS terrorists” in Homs province and farther north on the Aleppo-Khanaser road.
Russia – which has signed 38 ceasefire agreements with different parties, meaning it won’t launch airstrikes on them – reported 15 violations on Monday, most of them around Damascus and in the provinces of Aleppo, Homs and Latakia.
“The (growing) number of cease-fire violations is caused by efforts taken by the #ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra leadership in order to foil the truce regime by shelling positions of government troops and … areas controlled by ‘moderate opposition,’” the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic said in a statement.
Russian state news reported that artillery shells on Tuesday struck near a group of more than 30 journalists from Russia, China, Germany, Canada, Bulgaria, Greece and the United States in Syria’s Latakia province, a mile or so from the Turkish border. A handful of these journalists – who are on a press tour of areas controlled by parties who have signed on to the truce agreement – suffered minor injuries, according to a Sputnik story.
Al Nusra and ISIS carried out the shelling, Sputnik reported, citing a Syrian army source. But there was no immediate indication the journalists were specifically targeted, or even if either terror group knew where they were.
Assad: All we ask is for rebels to give up weapons
Moscow claims it hasn’t struck any “moderate” rebels since the truces went into effect, though its warplanes haven’t necessarily all stayed put.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said strikes had targeted the southern countryside of Hama, an area near Raqqa – the de facto capital of ISIS – and the Aleppo region.
In his ARD interview, Assad emphasized he wanted the fighting to an end – though he set the condition that rebel fighters “just (have) to give up” their weapons.
“The most important thing for me – legally and constitutionally, and basing on the interest of the Syrian people and the principle of any state – (is) that you’re not allowed, as a citizen, to hold machine guns and hurt people or properties,” Assad said, promising “full amnesty.”
“This is the only thing that we ask. We don’t ask for anything.”
CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.