The Latest: Russia says Syria rebels using truce to regroup

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria, where a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia has been holding since coming into effect earlier this week (all times local):

6:25 p.m.

The Russian military says the Syrian opposition has used the U.S.-Russia-brokered truce to regroup and strengthen its forces.

Head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Savchenko, says the opposition units have used the cease-fire declared on Monday to “restore their capability and regroup their forces in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Homs.”

In Friday’s video call with Moscow, a Syrian army officer claimed that the rebels were building up their forces for an offensive on Hama.

Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir of the Russian military’s General Staff urged him to observe the truce, but emphasized that the Syrian army has the right to fight back if it faces a rebel offensive. He added that the Russian air force will provide cover if that happens.


5:55 p.m.

Russia says it will help ensure the cease-fire in Syria for another three days, but warned the United States to press the rebels to end their violations to prevent the situation from “spinning out of control.”

Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir of the Russian military’s General Staff on Friday declared readiness to extend the U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire for another 72 hours, adding that Moscow expects Washington to take “resolute action” to end violations by the U.S.-backed opposition units.

Poznikhir said that the Syrian army has fully complied with the truce that went into force Monday, while the opposition units have violated it 144 times since then. He says the U.S. has failed to take measures to ensure the opposition’s compliance with the agreement.


5:45 p.m.

The Russian military says the Syrian army has moved its heavy weapons back to a key highway near the city of Aleppo after the opposition failed to withdraw theirs in sync.

The Russian military says the Syrian army withdrew its armor, artillery and other weapons north of the Castello Road early on Thursday, in line with the U.S.-Russia-brokered truce.

Head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Savchenko, says the Syrian army moved the weapons back on Friday as the opposition units had failed to pull back theirs in lockstep.

Russian Col. Sergei Kapitsyn said in a video call from the Castello Road that the rebels fired on government positions overnight, wounding two soldiers and prompting the Syrian army to move their weapons back to the road to prevent the rebels from advancing.


5:20 p.m.

Syria’s state media are saying that insurgents fired a rocket that hit a church in the northern city of Aleppo, causing material damage but no casualties.

The SANA news agency says the projectile hit the second floor of the Syriac Catholic Church in the city’s government-held neighborhood of Aziziyeh.

The government-held side of the contested city of Aleppo is home to a large Christian minority.

SANA said Friday’s shelling is a violation of the Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire that went into effect four days ago.

SANA says there were 23 violations of the truce deal in Aleppo on Thursday alone.


4:40 p.m.

The Russian defense ministry says its officers who watch the road leading into besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo say the Syrian army is ready to pull back its troops when the opposition is ready, too.

Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov, in a statement issued on Friday, cast doubt on the rebels’ “ability to comply” with a U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire, which came into effect earlier this week.

Konashenkov says the Syrian government forces are “the only party which is willing to hold talks, comply with the cease-fire and pull back the troops in order to allow UN humanitarian aid convoys.”

Konashenkov says Russian officers of the Center for Reconciliation are monitoring the Castello Road leading to Aleppo, but he stopped short of saying whether there were any Russian troops there.


3:55 p.m.

Syrian state TV is saying that bulldozers are clearing a main road leading into besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo to make way for aid convoys.

The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV also reported the same development, airing live footage on Friday afternoon from Aleppo, showing a bulldozer removing sand barriers from the Castello Road on the northwestern edge of Syria’s largest city and once commercial center.

The Lebanese station enjoys wide access in government-held areas in Syria and usually has reporters embedded with Syrian troops.

It was not immediately clear when the aid convoy would enter besieged rebel-held neighborhoods east of Aleppo.

Aid deliveries are part of a U.S.-Russia deal that imposed a cease-fire, which started Monday.


3:20 p.m.

Turkey is complaining because Syrian Kurdish fighters in the border town of Tel Abyad in Syria are still flying U.S. flags they had hoisted earlier.

The state-run Anadolu news agency says three U.S. flags were hung on Thursday around a compound of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and were still visible from Turkey on Friday afternoon.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are an ally to the United States in the battle against the Islamic State group.

But Turkey views them as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S.

U.S. Department of Defense chief spokesman Peter Cook earlier said that Washington has asked the Syrian Kurdish partner forces not to fly the American flag on their own but was unaware of this particular instance.


2:10 p.m.

One of the most powerful opposition groups in the northern province of Aleppo has denied that government forces withdrew from a main road leading into rebel-held parts of Syria’s largest city.

Nour el-Din el-Zinki group says in statement Friday that their observation posts in the area are confirming that government forces are still on the Castello road.

It accuses the government of not giving permission for the U.N. to deliver trucks of aid to besieged eastern neighborhoods in Aleppo


2:05 p.m.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia is using its influence on the Syrian government to make sure the ongoing cease-fire holds and wants the United States to do the same with regards to opposition groups.

Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that Russia “is still using its influence” to make sure the agreement, hammered out between Russia and the U.S., stands. He says that Moscow hopes that “our American counterparts will do the same.”

Russia is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Peskov says Russia believes that “progress is happening although with certain hiccups.”


2 p.m.

United Nations officials say they are awaiting word from Russia and Syrian combatants on both sides that security and monitoring are in place to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid into rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo.

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke says “it is my understanding” that U.N. officials are waiting for assurances that conditions are safe enough for two convoys of 20 trucks each to proceed from Turkey to eastern Aleppo.

Speaking to reporters Friday in Geneva, Laerke said the trucks are in a “special customs zone” on the Turkish border.

He clarifies that the U.N. does not require authorization from Syria’s government for cross-border aid deliveries.

Jan Egeland, a top U.N. coordinator of aid for Syria, says in a text message that the U.N. is waiting for assurances on “monitoring arrangements.”


12:15 p.m.

Opposition activists and state media are reporting clashes between troops and insurgents as well as shelling in two neighborhoods of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Syrian state news agency SANA says insurgents shelled government-held areas in the eastern neighborhood of Qaboun, wounding three people.

SANA says the shelling violates the cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia that went into effect Monday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Friday’s fighting is concentrated in the neighborhood of Jobar, next to Qaboun.

Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist near Damascus, says government forces tried to storm Jobar but were repelled by opposition fighters.

He says al-Qaida and Islamic State group fighters, who are excluded from the cease-fire, are not present in the area.


11:30 a.m.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister says the future of President Bashar Assad is an internal Syrian issue and the U.S.-Russia Syria agreement does not deal with it.

Assad has been accused of war crimes in the Syrian civil war and his opponents inside and outside the country have insisted that his departure is a prerequisite for a peace settlement.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency on Friday that Assad’s future is “purely Syrian business” and that the cease-fire deal that the United States and Russia signed last week did not discuss Assad’s future in any way


11 a.m.

A Syrian activist says Russian troops have deployed along a main road leading into besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo ahead of the possible arrival of aid convoys.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Syrian government forces that were stationed there have been replaced by Russian troops. He says aid is expected to enter rebel-held Aleppo later Friday.

Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby denies that government troops withdrew from Castello road.

Aid deliveries are part of a U.S.-Russia deal that imposed a cease-fire, which started Monday.

Russia’s military announced Thursday evening that Syrian government forces had begun withdrawing from Castello road but did not confirm if Russian troops would be stationed there. The Pentagon said it had no indication of a withdrawal.