In Syria, War Rages Hours Before Deal to Halt Fighting

BEIRUT (Reuters) —
Clouds hover over the capital city of Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Clouds hover over the capital city of Damascus, Syria, Thursday. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Heavy air strikes were reported to have hit rebel-held areas to the east of Damascus as fighting continued across much of western Syria on Friday, hours before a U.S.-Russian plan aimed at halting the fighting is due to take effect.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring organization reported at least 10 air raids and artillery shelling targeting the town of Douma in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Rescue workers in the opposition-held area, reporting on their social media feed, said there were confirmed civilian casualties but did not say how many. Syrian military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The “cessation of hostilities” agreement is due to take effect at midnight, local time.

The government has agreed to the plan. The main opposition alliance, which has deep reservations about the terms, has said it is ready for a two-week truce to test the intentions of the government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

Damascus has made clear it will continue to target Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front terror groups which are not included in the agreement.

The opposition fears the government will continue targeting rebels on the pretext they are terrorists. The government says the agreement could fail if foreign states supply rebels with weapons or insurgents use the truce to rearm.

Eastern Ghouta is regularly targeted by the Syrian army and its allies. It is a stronghold of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is represented in the main opposition alliance, and has been used as a launchpad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus.

The Observatory also reported artillery bombardment by government forces and air strikes overnight in Hama province, and artillery bombardment by government forces in Homs province.

Fighting also resumed at dawn between rebels and government forces in the northwestern province of Latakia, where the Syrian army and its allies are trying to take back more territory from insurgents at the border with Turkey.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States was resolved to try to make the deal work but that “there are plenty of reasons for skepticism.”

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