Syria conflict: Assad 'agrees to ceasefire'

DAMASCUS - The UN's envoy to Syria says President Bashar al-Assad's government has agreed to abide by a ceasefire during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Cairo that most opposition factions had also said they would observe any ceasefire.

The government said it would make its final decision on Thursday.

Mr Brahimi said he hoped to use the lull in fighting over Eid al-Adha, which starts on Friday, to "discuss a longer and more effective ceasefire".

Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, is celebrated by Muslims to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as proof of obedience to God.

Mr Brahimi has travelled across the Middle East over the past two weeks in an effort to persuade the Syrian government and opposition, as well as their respective backers, to agree to his proposal for a ceasefire to "allow a political process to develop".

Lakhdar Brahimi's surprise announcement of a Syria ceasefire raises as many questions as it answers.

As he made clear, while he believes the Syrian government has agreed to the ceasefire, only some of the rebel groups are on board. There are so many different rebel groups it may be impossible to win unanimous agreement from them. It could also be true that the Syrian government actually has more interest in a ceasefire, while it remains in power.

There is also the question of when the ceasefire would come into force - some Arab countries begin the Eid al-Adha holiday on Thursday, others, including Syria, mark it from Friday - and how long it would last. Nevertheless this does seem to be a rare glimmer of good news in a conflict which has been getting more intense by the day.

After holding talks on Wednesday with the Arab League's Secretary General, Nabil al-Arabi, the Algerian diplomat announced that the Syrian government had expressed its support.

"After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a ceasefire during the Eid," he told reporters.

"Other factions in Syria that we were able to contact - heads of fighting groups - most of them also agree on the principle of the ceasefire."

Mr Brahimi did not say when he believed the truce would begin or how long it would last.

"If this humble initiative succeeds, we hope we can build on it in order to negotiate a longer and more effective halt of military operations, which could be a part of a comprehensive political process," he added.

The Syrian foreign ministry said the government would announce its "final position on the issue" on Thursday.

"The proposal to halt military operations during the blessed Eid al-Adha holiday is still being studied by the leadership of the army and the armed forces," a statement explained.

Gen Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army's military council, said any ceasefire observed by the government would be reciprocated, but warned that it had "lied many times before".

"It is impossible that the regime will implement the truce, even if it says it will," he told the AFP news agency.

The BBC's Tim Whewell reports from Marea, where the threat of helicopters distract funeral-goers

The leader of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, told the Associated Press he had little hope the truce would take hold.

"This regime, we don't trust it, because it is saying something and doing something else on the ground," Abdelbaset Sayda added.

A ceasefire negotiated in April by Mr Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, broke down within days and was followed by an escalation in the conflict.

Human rights and opposition activists estimate that more than 30,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

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