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Syria ceasefire task force meets, France wants answers on violations

GENEVA (Reuters) - Countries sponsoring the Syria peace process met in Geneva on Monday amid complaints that a new cessation of hostilities deal was quickly unraveling, with France demanding information about reports of persisting attacks on rebel positions.

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the cessation arrangement was holding by and large but the peace group, meeting for the first time since the pact took force early on Saturday, was trying to ensure fresh clashes did not spread.

“We have received indications that attacks, including by air, have been continuing against zones controlled by the moderate opposition,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“All this needs to be verified. France has therefore demanded that the task force charged with overseeing the cessation of hostilities meet without delay.”

A spokesman for the Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said the cessation of hostilities was broken by Syrian government forces 15 times within the first day, and that there were further violations by Russia and Hezbollah, both allies of President Bashar al-Assad.

The countries belonging to the “International Syria Support Group” (ISSG), led by the United States and Russia, are supposed to monitor compliance with the deal and act rapidly to end any flare-ups, while using force only as a last resort.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said violations would be discussed, but he declined to comment on reports of poison gas attacks.

Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Alexey Borodavkin, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, as saying the task force meeting was previously planned. “The Russian and United States militaries are in constant contact and in actual fact conducted meetings over the weekend,” he said.

HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said on Sunday it was still unclear how the system was supposed to function.

Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC’s delegation to peace talks, said the cessation had collapsed from the outset and it faced “complete nullification”, Al Arabiya al Hadath TV reported.

A Western diplomat said De Mistura was saying that the number of air strikes had fallen from 100 to about 6-8 a day, so there needed to be some perspective about the situation.

“We need to get an explanation from the Russians on the strikes that took place on Sunday,” the diplomat added.

A Western ambassador said “accidents” had always been expected. “But the ISSG will discuss it today. It’s their view that will count.”

Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Heinrich