Wednesday 21 March 2018

Nations agree to resume Syria peace talks as dozens die in Damascus

John Kerry arrives in Vienna for talks on ending the Syrian war. (AP)
John Kerry arrives in Vienna for talks on ending the Syrian war. (AP)

The United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations have directed the UN to begin a new diplomatic process with Syria's government and opposition with the goal of reaching a nationwide ceasefire and political transition.

US secretary of state John Kerry made the announcement at a joint news conference with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Mr Kerry made no declarations about the future of Syrian president Bashar Assad. Russia and Iran back Assad, but the US and its allies want him ousted.

Mr Kerry said the UN-led process should lead to a new constitution for Syria and internationally supervised elections.

The talks in Vienna came as a barrage of missiles slammed into a crowded suburb of the Syrian capital, killing at least 45 people.

The attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma was a stark reminder of the enormous civilian suffering inside Syria while negotiations take place.

There were conflicting reports about the attack in Douma. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees said government forces fired more than 11 missiles at a market. The Observatory said the attack killed 57 people, while the LCC said at least 40 died.

Both organisations - and a third, Douma-based activist network - reported that dozens more were wounded. The third group, the Douma Revolution network, listed the names of 45 people killed.

The Syrian National Council, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, blamed Russian air strikes for the "massacre" in Douma, saying 55 civilians were killed. It said it was the second deadly attack in the past 24 hours after Russian air strikes hit the main Douma hospital.

The sprawling suburb is a frequent target of government air strikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. It is home to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, also known as Islam Army, which has claimed responsibility in the past for firing rockets on Damascus, the seat of Assad's presidency.

In August, air strikes on Douma were said to have killed around 100 people, provoking a sharp rebuke from the UN and other officials.

Douma has been held by anti-Assad rebels since the early days of Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown. The conflict has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria's pre-war population.

Amateur videos posted on the internet showed bodies strewn among wreckage and young men sprawled on the ground of what appears to be a market. Pools of blood and flames could be seen as people cried for help.

Meanwhile, at least 15 people, including four children, were killed in air strikes on the northern city of Aleppo, activists said. It was not clear whether the strikes were Russian or from Syrian government aircraft.

Press Association

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