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'Visible progress' as 'fragile' Syria ceasefire largely holds

A US and Russia-brokered ceasefire in Syria is largely holding despite sporadic clashes in some areas, a United Nations envoy has said.

Staffan de Mistura spoke as he convened a group monitoring the truce in the hope of a breakthrough that could pave the way for regular humanitarian aid deliveries to remote areas that have been cut off by the fighting.

It was the third meeting of a task force set up by the International Syria Support Group, made up of world and regional powers under the leadership of the US and Russia, which is monitoring the "cessation of hostilities" that began on Saturday.

Mr De Mistura said the ceasefire has "greatly reduced" violence in Syria and expressed hope to resume peace talks between Syrians, which were called off last month after a spike in fighting.

"In general, the cessation has been holding," he said, speaking alongside his humanitarian aid adviser Jan Egeland.

"Unfortunately, we have to admit, like in every cessation of hostilities or ceasefire - and in particular this one - there are still a number of places where fighting has continued, including parts of Hama, Homs, Latakia and Damascus, but they have been contained," he added.

Mr de Mistura said the situation is "fragile, success is not guaranteed, but progress has been visible".

The ceasefire is shaping up as the most promising initiative in years to help end a five-war that has killed at least 250,000 people, driven millions of Syrians to flee the country, and given an opening to militants such as the extremist Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, as Syria's al Qaida branch is known, to seize large swaths of land.

The two militant factions and other extremist groups that have been designated terrorist organisations by the UN are not included in the diplomatic initiatives.

Mr de Mistura appeared to ease back from a recent statement that he hopes to convene talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad's envoys and representatives of the so-called moderate opposition in Geneva next Wednesday.

While he had set a "pencilled date" for Wednesday for those "proximity talks," Mr de Mistura acknowledged that delegations were facing logistical issues, such as competing for hotel rooms with attendees of a car show. Some envoys could arrive as late as March 14, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Egeland said there has been progress in aid shipments to besieged cities across Syria.

"In the last two weeks, 236 trucks have served 115,000 people," he said, but warned that in recent days, aid shipments have been beset by "logistical" problems.

UN officials have cited problems in getting enough trucks in place as well as difficulties in winning approvals from Syrian government officials, who have at times stripped out badly needed medical supplies from convoys.

Mr Egeland said UN officials had received "indications" that there will be "a much simplified system" for gaining approvals to ship in aid, including a monthly schedule.

Earlier, Amnesty International reported that Russian and Syrian government forces have been targeting hospitals as a strategy of war during the Syria conflict.

The advocacy group said it has "compelling evidence" of at least six deliberate attacks on medical facilities in the Aleppo region in the past 12 weeks, which killed at least three civilians, including a medical worker, and wounded 44.

Amnesty said the attacks amounted to war crimes, and aimed to pave the way for pro-government ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in its Syria campaign. Assad has also denied targeting civilians, saying he is waging a war against terrorism, but he has said that it is a "rule of thumb" in war that innocent civilians die.

Also on Thursday, Syrian state TV reported a sudden electricity blackout across the entire country for unknown reasons.

Blackouts have been frequent in the course of the conflict but it is rare for the whole country to be affected.

Previous blackouts were blamed on rebel attacks targeting the electricity network but no reason was given for the latest outage.

Internet services were also partially halted as a result of damage to one of the network hubs. Services later resumed, and electricity was being gradually restored.

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