Calm returns to much of Syria as government extends truce

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's military extended a unilateral cease-fire around the capital for another 24 hours on Sunday, as relative calm set in across much of the country after days of heavy fighting concentrated in the northern city of Aleppo.

Aleppo, the country's largest city and a key battleground in the civil war, was not covered by the cease-fire but saw less fighting on Sunday. More than 250 people have died in shelling and airstrikes in the northern city over the last nine days, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The government declared its own cease-fire around Damascus and the coastal Latakia region Friday following two weeks of escalating unrest. But more than three dozen rebel factions said Saturday they would not respect the truce unless the government agreed to extend it over the whole country.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko told Russian news agencies at a Russian Air Force base in Syria that Moscow's forces were negotiating a cease-fire for the Aleppo province.

The Observatory said 859 civilians, including 143 children, died in Syria's conflict in April, despite a partial cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia in late February. That cease-fire disintegrated in recent weeks, largely over the fighting in and around Aleppo.

In Aleppo, as in the rest of the country, pro-government forces were responsible for most of the civilian causalities, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of opposition activists inside Syria.

At the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Francis decried the violence and "desperate" humanitarian situation in Syria, and especially Aleppo. He made special note of an airstrike against a hospital in the rebel-held section of the contested city that is believed to have been carried out by Syrian government or Russian aircraft.

The international humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said at least 50 people, including six medical personnel, died in the attack on Al-Quds hospital, which was supported by MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In his traditional Sunday remarks to the faithful in St. Peter's Square, Francis lamented the "spiral of violence" that was "reaping innocent victims, even among children, the sick and those who with great sacrifice are committed to helping their neighbors."

The pope said he was "exhorting all sides involved in the conflict to respect the cessation of hostilities and reinforce ongoing dialogue."

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