Intense diplomacy, proposals for new Syria cease-fire
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's military extended its own, unilateral cease-fire around Damascus for another 48 hours on Monday amid an intense diplomatic push by the United States and Russia to restore a partial truce for the entire country - one that would include war-battered Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
American officials say one idea being considered by the U.S. side is a detailed map that would be drawn up with the Russians laying out "safe zones" where civilians and members of moderate opposition groups covered by the truce could find shelter from persistent government attacks.
It was not immediately clear whether Russia would accept such a plan or if Moscow could persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to respect the prospective zones.
One U.S. official said "hard lines" would delineate specific areas and neighborhoods. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not specifically refer to such a proposal in his comments to reporters in Geneva, where he met Monday with the Saudi foreign minister and the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
"There are several proposals that are now going back to key players to sign off. We are hopeful but we are not there yet," Kerry said, adding he would telephone Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later Monday and that de Mistura was headed to Moscow on Tuesday for talks.
Aleppo has remained on knife's edge as rebels and government forces trade rockets and bombs across the northern city and its outskirts, according to activist monitoring groups. Fierce violence took the lives of more than 250 civilians over the previous nine days, according to opposition activists.
The violence eased somewhat on Sunday. Still, rebels on Monday lobbed rockets into government-held areas in the western part of the city while government helicopters dropped crude and unguided "barrel bombs" on opposition-held areas in Aleppo and surrounding villages, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Separately, a car bomb detonated in the rebel-held Salhin neighborhood of the city, appearing to target an Islamic judiciary council.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, which organizes rescue operations in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, said several civilians were killed and wounded.
Speaking later to staff at the U.S. mission in Geneva, Kerry said he hoped that an agreement about Aleppo could be announced within the next few days.
Earlier Monday, Syria's military extended a unilateral cease-fire around Damascus and opposition strongholds in the eastern suburbs of the capital for another 48 hours.
The government first declared its cease-fire on Friday around Damascus, the capital's eastern Ghouta suburbs, and the coastal Latakia region, in the wake of two weeks of rising violence that spoiled a previous truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia in late February.
Kerry and de Mistura both said Friday that the U.S. and Russia have agreed that there will be additional personnel stationed in Geneva around the clock to create a better mechanism for monitoring and controlling a new cease-fire.
Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called the situation in Aleppo with continued airstrikes an "outrage" and a criminal violation of humanitarian law. He said that Assad would be held accountable for the attacks and would be removed from power either through a political process or by force.
"There is only one side that is flying airplanes," al-Jubeir said, adding that it's the side of Assad and his allies. "So they are responsible for the massacre of women, children, and the elderly."
"This situation, any way you slice it, will not stand. The world is not going to allow them to get away with this," he said.
Russia's Tass news agency quoted Russian Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko, head of the Russian coordination center in Syria, as saying that the Damascus area cease-fire was brokered by the Russia and the United States, "in agreement with the Syrian leadership and the moderate opposition."
But more than three dozen rebel factions said Saturday they would not respect the truce unless the government agreed to extend it over the whole country - including in Aleppo.
The cease-fire in Syria, which first went into effect in late February, has been partial in the sense that it doesn't include the extremist Islamic State group and Syria's al-Qaida branch known as the Nusra Front.
On the ground, relief efforts by the International Committee for the Red Cross continued with a convoy of 13 ICRC trucks and 3 trucks from the Syrian Arab Crescent delivering assistance to 12,000 families trapped in the government-besieged town of Talbiseh in north of the central city of Homs, ICRC spokesperson Pawel Krzysiek said Monday.
The population of Talbiseh has doubled to 60,000 with the influx of displaced residents from other areas, according to the ICRC.
Also Monday, Syrian opposition activist groups said authorities surrounded a prison in the central city of Hama in response to a riot inside the facility that saw prisoners take several guards hostage. The Observatory said security forces fired tear gas into Hama's main prison.
The Syrian prisoners' rights group Detainees' Voice says inmates went on strike after authorities tried to transfer five political prisoners on death row to the notorious Sidnaya prison in Damascus.
Syria's Interior Ministry denied the reports, according to the official news agency SANA.
Associated Press Writers Philip Issa and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.