Islamic State group storms Syrian town as cease-fire begins

BEIRUT -- A U.S. and Russia-brokered cease-fire brought relative calm to parts of Syria for the first time in years on Saturday, but the war against the Islamic State group continued as the extremist group stormed a northern border town in a surprise attack.

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The Islamic State group, which is not a party to the cease-fire, launched several attacks after the truce went into effect, including a brazen offensive on the northern town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey and two car bombs in central Syria that were blamed on IS by local activists and Syrian state TV.

The cease-fire went into effect across Syria Friday at midnight, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country's devastating conflict that has killed 250,000 people, wounded a million and created Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II.

In addition to IS, the truce does not include al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, which is also considered a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

A top military official in Moscow said Russia has grounded its warplanes in Syria to help secure the cease-fire.

Lt.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the General Staff of Russia's military said that while Russia will continue air strikes against IS and Nusra Front, Moscow is keeping its aircraft on the ground for now "to avoid any possible mistakes."

Rudskoi said that 17 opposition units have contacted the Russian military to adhere to the truce.

He said the Russian military had established hotlines to exchange information with the U.S. military in order to help monitor the cease-fire and quickly respond to any conflict situations.

The U.S. has provided the Russian Defence Ministry with similar maps and its own list of opposition units, which have agreed to respect the cease-fire.

Rudskoi said that according to the U.S.-Russian agreements, a rebel unit that accidentally comes under attack should contact Russian or U.S. representatives who would quickly resolve the incident.

A co-ordinationcentre at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, where Russian warplanes are based, has 61 officers who negotiate with groups willing to join the cease-fire and co-ordinate the deliveries of humanitarian aid.

Opposition activists in different parts of Syria said the situation has been "cautiously calm" since the truce went into effect, reporting sporadic violations.

According to Syrian state media, IS launched two suicide attacks near the central town of Salamiyeh, one on an army checkpoint that killed two and wounded four. The second car bomb was destroyed by Syrian troops before reaching a military post, state TV said.

No one claimed responsibility for the blasts in the area of Salamiyeh where most residents belong to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for several bombings in Syria that claimed the lives of dozens in recent weeks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for human Rights said the explosion was the work of IS, adding that the two killed were both soldiers. It added that Syrian warplanes' attacked suspected IS positions in areas outside Salamiyeh.

In the northern province of Raqqa, IS fighters stormed the border town of Tal Abyad and the nearby village of Suluk that were captured months ago by Kurdish fighters, according to a Syrian rebel official.

Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces, said the fighting began after midnight Friday and was still ongoing. Tal Abyad has been held by Kurdish fighters since July.

Sillo and the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, said some of the IS fighters came from Turkey. The YPG statement said its fighters had killed the attackers after hours of fighting.

The Aamaq news agency, which is affiliated with the extremist group, reported that IS fighters launched a "surprise attack" on several areas in northern Raqqa province, where Tal Abyad is located. But the report did not provide further details.

The Observatory said intense fighting is ongoing near the northern town of Khanaser between troops and pro-government gunmen against IS. Battles have continued for five days in the strategic area that that is close to the highway that links Aleppo with central and western Syria.

State TV said Syrian warplanes attacked oil tanker trucks belonging to IS in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

The Syrian government and 97 rebel and militant groups said they will abide by the cease-fire.

In southern Syria, the situation was "calm" Saturday according to opposition activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh who is based in the southern city of Daraa. Calm also prevailed in large parts of the central province of Homs, according to Mohammed al-Sibai, who is based in the province.

"The situation yesterday was very bad and fighting was intense," al-Masalmeh said. "Then it was like a football match. People were excited and once the referee blew his whistle all the noise stopped."

The Observatory reported clashes between the Army of Islam faction and fighters loyal to IS in the Damascus suburb of Dumair. It also reported at least two rockets hitting the Damascus suburb of Bala.

The Observatory reported another violation of the cease-fire in the coastal province of Latakia where Syrian troops killed 12 militants.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.


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