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Ceasefire broken in northwestern Syria

The Observatory said explosions had been heard in Taftanaz, with activists blaming government barrel bombs.

A file picture shows a member of the Syrian government forces keeps watch in the Ghweran neighbourhood of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh, on 13 July, 2015. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - A ceasefire in northwest Syria, part of a wider deal that included cessation of hostilities in the area as well as in a town near the Lebanese border, was broken late on Saturday, a monitoring group said.

Shells apparently fired by insurgents hit the village of al-Foua in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after rebels blamed government forces for violating the ceasefire by dropping barrel bombs on an area nearby.

Warring sides had agreed on a ceasefire in al-Foua and next-door Kefraya, two villages held by pro-government forces and besieged by rebels, as well as in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border, where insurgents are holed up and surrounded by government forces.

But shelling of al-Foua resumed, the Observatory said, with no immediate casualties reported.

The shelling came after an online statement purportedly from insurgents in the area that blamed the government for violating the ceasefire by dropping barrel bombs on the nearby village Taftanaz.

The statement said insurgents retaliated by firing at al-Foua and Kefraya.

The Observatory said explosions had been heard in Taftanaz, with activists blaming government barrel bombs for killing at least five people there. It was unclear if Taftanaz had been included in the ceasefire agreement.

The leader of Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which backs Syrian government forces, confirmed on Friday that a long-term ceasefire deal had been reached which would include withdrawal of rebel fighters from Zabadani in exchange for the evacuation of civilians from al-Foua and Kefraya.

RUSSIA, IRAN, SYRIA COOPERATING ON SECURITY ISSUES

Iraq said on Saturday that its military officials were engaged in intelligence and security cooperation in Baghdad with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from the Islamic State militant group, a pact that could raise concerns in Washington.

A statement from the Iraqi military' joint operations command said the cooperation had come "with increased Russian concern about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts with Daesh (Islamic State)."

The move could give Moscow more sway in the Middle East. It has stepped up its military involvement in Syria in recent weeks while pressing for Damascus to be included in international efforts to fight Islamic State, a demand Washington rejects.

Moscow's involvement in Iraq could mean increased competition for Washington from a Cold War enemy as long-time enemy Iran increases its influence through Shi'ite militia allies just four years after the withdrawal of US troops.

By raising the stakes in Syria's four-year-old civil war, Russia has prompted its Cold War foe to expand diplomatic channels with it.

Western officials have said US Secretary of State John Kerry wants to launch a new effort at the UN General Assembly this week to try to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

Diplomacy has taken on new urgency in light of Russia's military build-up in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a refugee crisis that has spilled into Europe.

Critics have urged US President Barack Obama to be more decisive in the Middle East, particularly towards the Syrian conflict, and say lack of a clear American policy has given Islamic State opportunities to expand.

Russian news agency Interfax quoted a military diplomatic source in Moscow as saying the Baghdad coordination centre would be led on a rotating basis by officers of the four countries, starting with Iraq.

The source added a committee might be created in Baghdad to plan military operations and control armed forces units in the fight against Islamic State.

A Russian foreign ministry official told Interfax on Friday that Moscow could "theoretically" join the US-led coalition against Islamic State if Damascus were included in international efforts to combat Islamic State and any international military operation in Syria had a United Nations mandate.

Iraqi officials on Friday had denied reports of a coordination cell in Baghdad set up by Russian, Syrian and Iranian military commanders aimed at working with Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in Iraq.

The armed groups, some of which have fought alongside troops loyal to Assad, are seen as a critical weapon in Baghdad's battle against the radical Sunni militants of Islamic State.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in New York on Friday that his country had not received any Russian military advisers to help its forces but called for the US-led coalition to bomb more Islamic State targets in Iraq.

Despite more than $20 billion in US aid and training, Iraq's army has nearly collapsed twice in the last year in the face of advances by Islamic State, which controls large swathes of territory in the north and west of the OPEC oil producer.

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