BEIRUT — Government officials and rebels reached a deal to ease a weeks-long blockade on a rebel-held town near the Syrian capital on Sunday, allowing food to reach civilians there for the first time in weeks, activists said.
The truce is the latest to be struck in recent months between President Bashar Assad’s government and disparate rebel groups in the country’s more than 2 ½-year-old conflict.
It comes as the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group was holding the second of two days of meetings in Istanbul to decide whether to attend a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva by the end of this year.
The Syrian National Coalition has demanded Assad step down in any transitional government as a condition for participation in the talks. Syrian officials say Assad will stay in his post at least until his term ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.
Coalition spokesman Louay Safi said discussions were still ongoing Sunday night.
“There are people who are concerned and worried that not enough preparation has taken place. And there are those who would like to make a decision but with some preparation,” he told reporters in Istanbul.
According to a draft statement that the coalition officials say the group intends to vote on, the opposition in exile affirms its “readiness” to take part in a transitional government, but one that has full powers, including executive powers.
A copy of the draft obtained by The Associated Press also said the coalition will consult with “revolutionary forces inside Syria, as well as Arab and international allies, to explain the coalition’s position and bolster unanimity over the coalition’s decision.”
The coalition is also expected to approve a list of cabinet of ministers presented by interim prime minister, Ahmad Toumeh, who was elected in September.
The Western-backed group also has called for goodwill measures from the Assad government, including lifting sieges on rebel-held areas. It wasn’t clear whether the deal in Qudsaya was such a gesture, as neither rebels nor Syrian officials comment on such deals.
An activist group, the Qudsaya Media Team, confirmed the truce in a statement but gave few details. In an earlier statement this month, they said local markets had run out of food, and the area’s poorest residents were going hungry. They could not be immediately reached for comment.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deal allowed food and flour to enter the town on the outskirts of Damascus, under blockade since October. The Observatory monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground.
All warring sides in Syria’s civil war have blockaded towns to squeeze the opposing fighters and their support networks, but the most affected have been poor people struggling to buy food, the elderly, the sick and children.
In recent weeks, a variety of Syrian mediators have been trying to ease blockades in several areas, with modest success.
Syria’s government is under pressure from the international community to allow food and medical aid into blockaded areas, particularly after reports emerged of widespread hunger in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh this year. It appears civilians have also pressured rebels to accept truces.
Meanwhile, fighting raged for control of a key base protecting the government-held airport in the northern city of Aleppo.
The Brigade 80 base has been reported to have changed hands multiple times in the past day. It first fell to rebels in February, but the government retook it last week. Activists said that it was recaptured by rebels overnight Friday but by Sunday afternoon, troops loyal to Assad were again in control, said the Observatory and a Lebanese television channel that closely follows Syria.
Another pro-rebel activist in the Aleppo province said the clashes were still ongoing and it wasn’t clear what the outcome of the fighting yet was.
The rebels fighting at Brigade 80 have been led by fighters from the Islamic Tawhid Brigade and two al-Qaida-linked groups, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The activist and the Observatory said gunmen from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group were fighting alongside Syrian troops at the site. The government-held Aleppo International Airport, which has been closed due to fighting for almost a year, is one of the Syrian rebels’ major objectives.
And in northeastern Syria, rebels killed lawmaker Mahjam al-Sahho, said the state-run news agency SANA. The 50-year-old was seized by gunmen affiliated with the al-Qaida-affiliated ISIL several days ago, the agency said.