With Moscow's backing, the Syrian government has agreed to a ceasefire in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. But as another round of UN talks prepare to start in Geneva, heavy shelling in the area killed three on Tuesday.
UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said that a Russian envoy had floated the idea of a ceasefire at a meeting of ambassadors from Security Council permanent representatives — Britain, France, China, Russia and the US.
"Russia has proposed and the [Syrian] government has accepted a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta," de Mistura told reporters in Geneva, where an eighth round of peace talks began on Tuesday.
Moscow proposed the ceasefire for November 28-29.
Russia has backed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the 6-year conflict against various opposition and militia groups, some of which have been backed by the US and NATO.
Eastern Ghouta is one of several "de-escalation" zones in western Syria. Russia has already brokered ceasefire deals between rebels and Assad's government in some of them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting in Sochi on November 20
Talks about talks
De Mistura told The Associated Press news agency that he expected a delegation from the government to arrive on Wednesday.
The German news agency DPA reported that the government group will only take part in talks on Friday.
"We are going to offer it [the ceasefire]. We will see if this takes place. But we will be offering that," de Mistura said after meeting the opposition delegation at their hotel.
The Syrian opposition has in the past accused the regime of not taking peace talks seriously.
At the Geneva talks, government and opposition negotiators may talk face-to-face for the first time, de Mistura told reporters on Tuesday.
At the three days of scheduled talks, the opposition delegation - the Syrian Negotiation Commission - wants direct negotiations with the government instead of the previous model of each side speaking via UN mediators.
Syria's permanent representative to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, will attend after "intensive contact" over the past two days between the Syrian and Russian sides, a foreign ministry source was cited as saying by the official SANA news agency.
Russia's ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin said Moscow appreciated the "opportunity," but "at the same time, we have some doubts about this kind of format, and do not consider it an established one."
The delay in the government's involvement in the talks is also due to its reluctance to discuss opposition demands, principally the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, but also talks on a new constitution and elections. The government says it wants to prioritize anti-terrorism issues.
Damaged buildings after the regime's air strikes on residential areas in the de-escalation zone of Misraba town in Eastern Ghouta
Three killed before ceasefire
The town of Hammuriyeh in Eastern Ghouta was hit with air strikes on Tuesday morning, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The shelling killed three people in what is the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus, it said.
A Syrian official told the news agency Reuters that the situation later on Tuesday was calm.
The UK-based war monitor said there were three deaths and 15 injuries from Tuesday's shelling.
Government air strikes and shelling on Eastern Ghouta intensified at the weekend, killing at least 43 people on Sunday and Monday.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said this week that hundreds of people had been wounded in intense bombing and shelling of Eastern Ghouta in the last two weeks.
Five MSF-supported field hospitals in Eastern Ghouta treated 576 wounded patients and recorded 69 deaths, with a quarter of the wounded women or children under the age of 15.
jbh/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)