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Syrian military agrees to Eid cease-fire; residents report shelling


A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country

Damascus residents reported artillery barrages by Syrian troops on Thursday, hours before the scheduled start of a cease-fire to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, according to Reuters.

Residents said the shelling by troops stationed on a mountain overlooking the Syrian capital targeted Hajar al-Aswad, a poor neighborhood inhabited by refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

"Consecutive artillery volleys from Qasioun shook my home," said Omar, an engineer who lives in al-Muhajereen district on a foothill of the mountain.

A Free Syrian Army commander had earlier given qualified backing to the truce, proposed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but he demanded that President Bashar al-Assad free detainees. An Islamist group said it was not committed to the truce, due to start on Friday, but may halt operations if the army did.

Brahimi proposed the temporary truce to stem, however briefly, the bloodshed in a conflict that began as popular protests in March last year and has escalated into a civil war that activists say has killed more than 32,000 people.

Syria agrees to cease-fire during Eid holiday, says mediator

The fighting pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, from the Alawite faith which is linked to Shiite Islam, and threatens to draw in regional Sunni Muslim and Shiite powers and engulf the whole Middle East, Brahimi has warned.

"On the occasion of the blessed Eid al-Adha, the general command of the army and armed forces announces a halt to military operations on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, from Friday morning ... until Monday," an army statement read on state television said.

It reserved the right to respond if "the armed terrorist groups open fire on civilians and government forces, attack public and private properties, or use car bombs and explosives."

It would also respond to any reinforcement or re-supplying of rebel units, or smuggling of fighters from neighboring countries "in violation of their international commitments to combat terrorism."

Qassem Saadeddine, head of the military council in Homs province and spokesman for the FSA joint command, said his fighters were committed to the truce but demanded the release of opposition prisoners on Friday.

Syrian opposition skeptical of 'feeble' ceasefire plan

Abu Moaz, spokesman for Ansar al-Islam, said the Islamist group doubted Assad's forces would observe the truce, though it might suspend operations if they did.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has yet to announce that a cease-fire between government forces and rebels has been finalized. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.

"We do not care about this truce. We are cautious. If the tanks are still there and the checkpoints are still there then what is the truce?" he said of the organization, which includes several brigades fighting in the capital and Damascus province.

Brahimi's predecessor, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, declared a cease-fire in Syria on April 12, but it soon became a dead letter, along with the rest of his six-point peace plan.

Report: At least 20 killed in Aleppo as rebels battle Syria army

Violence has intensified since then, with daily death tolls compiled by opposition monitoring groups often exceeding 200.

The U.S. State Department said it hopes the opposition forces and the government in Syria will put down their weapons and abide by the call for a cease-fire.

"What we are hoping and expecting is that they will not just talk the talk of cease-fire, but that they will walk the walk, beginning with the regime and we will be watching very closely," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.  

Nuland called any day in Syria without violence progress and expressed hope that if the cease-fire is in place, there may be "space for more work to be done on a transition."

But Nuland also expressed skepticism, saying: "The Syrian regime in particular is good at making promises and less good at following through."

China urged all sides to respect a cease-fire, an idea also backed by Syria's main regional ally Iran.

Aid window
U.N. aid agencies have geared up to take advantage of any window of opportunity provided by a cease-fire to go to areas that have been difficult to reach due to fighting, a U.N. official in Geneva said.

"UN agencies have been preparing rapidly to scale up especially in areas that have been difficult to reach due to active conflict and which may become accessible as a result of these developments," he told Reuters.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said that it had prepared emergency kits for distribution for up to 13,000 families - an estimated 65,000 people - in previously inaccessible areas including Homs and the northeastern city of Hassaka.

"We and our partners want to be in a position to move quickly if security allows over the next few days," UNHCR Syria Representative Tarik Kurdi in Damascus said in a statement.

The U.N. World Food Programme has identified 90,000 people in 21 hot spots from Aleppo to Homs and Latakia in need food parcels and will try to reach them through local agencies, the U.N. official said.

Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, welcomed the planned cease-fire, according to Al Jazeera.

"We would simply fervently hope that the guns do fall silent, that there is a suspension in the violence so that humanitarian workers can help those who are most in need," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters, according to Al Jazeera.

"The world is now watching," he added.

Reuters and NBC's Catherine Chomiak contributed to this report.

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