Airstrikes halt in Syria's Idlib as truce goes into effect

Syrian opposition activists say airstrikes halted in northwestern region after truce goes into effect

BEIRUT -- Syrian government airstrikes halted on Friday in the country's northwest after a truce went into effect there, but ground fire killed at least one person in a government-held village near President Bashar Assad's hometown, state media and opposition activists said.

The reports said the rebels will have to retreat 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from demilitarized areas around the stronghold that were agreed to in a cease-fire deal reached last September. That deal fell apart in April as Assad's forces launched an assault on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country, which has killed hundreds and displaced more than 400,000 people.

The al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful rebel group in Idlib, said the government declared the cease-fire because it wasn't able to advance into rebel-held areas during its recent offensive "without resorting to a scorched-earth policy." The group said that it would abide by the cease-fire but has "the right to retaliate" if the government attacks.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said rebels fired five rockets into a village near Assad's hometown of Qardaha, killing one civilian and wounding three others.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Idlib was witnessing "cautious calm" on Friday as warplanes stopped flying over the province. The Observatory, which monitors Syria's war through a network of activists on the ground, also said government forces fired about 50 shells in the morning hours at rebel-held villages in northern parts of the central province of Hama.

Ahmad Sheikho of the opposition Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, also known as White Helmets, said that since midnight there were "no warplanes in the air" but that artillery shelling continued.

Speaking about the truce, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari appeared skeptical. He said thousands of foreign fighters remain in Idlib, describing them as part of an "international terrorist project," apparently referring to foreign jihadi fighters and also Turkish forces inside Syria.

Turkey has launched several offensives into Syria, drawing the ire of Assad's government, and maintains bases along their shared border — mainly to keep U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters from expanding their territory. Turkey considers a Syrian Kurdish militia that has battled the Islamic State group to be terrorists linked with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

The Turkish military also has 12 observation posts that ring the rebel enclave in Idlib. Those were set up following a de-escalation agreement reached last year with Russia, a key Syrian government ally, and Turkey, which backs the opposition.

"The truce is to test Turkish intentions," Ja'afari said in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan where a two-day international meeting on Syria wrapped up Friday.

He added that the cease-fire was conditional on the implementation of the Turkish-Russian cease-fire reached last year establishing a demilitarized zone around Idlib.

The Russia-sponsored talks in Kazakhstan, attended by Iran and Turkey, ended with a statement calling for calm by implementing agreements regarding the region, including last September's cease-fire.

The truce went into effect just hours after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres authorized an investigation into attacks on health facilities and schools in the rebel-held enclave, following a petition from Security Council members.