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Russia-backed Syria de-escalation zones quaked by fighting

Syrian regime forces and armed opposition factions clashed in the northwestern province of Hama last night shortly after a Russian-led deal to establish de-escalation zones took effect, a monitor and an opposition official said.

Fighter jets fired at the opposition-held village of Al-Zalakiyat and nearby positions in the Hama countryside, where the combatants exchanged shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based war monitoring group said government forces shelled the nearby towns of Kafr Zita and Latamneh. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian regime's army.

Mohammed Rasheed, a spokesman for the Jaish Al-Nasr rebel group based in Hama, confirmed that fighting had broken out after midnight.

Iran and Turkey agreed on Thursday to a Russian proposal for de-escalation zones in Syria, but the memorandum the three guarantors signed has not been made public, leaving its details unclear. Neither the regime nor the opposition signed the agreement.

The zones appear intended to halt conflict in specific areas between Assad regime forces and opposition fighters, and would potentially be policed by foreign troops.

The Russian defence ministry had said the agreement would come into force as of midnight on Friday. The first and largest zone in northern Syria includes Idlib province and adjoining districts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia with a population of over one million, Russian news agencies cited the ministry as saying.

The Syrian regime supported the de-escalation plan, but said it would continue to fight what it termed terrorist groups. Rebels rejected the deal and said they would not recognise Iran as a guarantor of any ceasefire plan.

With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed Shia jihadist militias, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has gained the military upper hand in the six-year conflict. The wide array of rebel groups include some supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

The main Syrian opposition body, the HNC, which includes political and armed groups, denounced the plan earlier as vague. The High Negotiations Committee said the deal "was concluded without the Syrian people" and "lacks the minimum basics of legitimacy".

The deal marks the latest diplomatic effort to quell the fighting, though questions have been raised about Russia's seriousness in real diplomacy. Several truces and agreements have fallen apart during the multi-sided war, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.

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