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Saturday 24 February 2018

Plea to Russia on Syria peace talks

Louay Safi, centre, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, and Anas al-Abdeh, left, a member of the coalition, brief journalists at the UN headquarters in Geneva (AP)
Louay Safi, centre, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, and Anas al-Abdeh, left, a member of the coalition, brief journalists at the UN headquarters in Geneva (AP)

Syrian warplanes pounded a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, activists said, as opposition leaders in Geneva called on Russia to put pressure on the government to prevent the faltering peace negotiations from collapsing.

A second round of talks that started in Geneva on Monday is mired in acrimony as government and opposition delegates throw accusations back and forth, unable to agree on a common agenda.

The UN said that a meeting between senior US and Russian officials - who are backing the process - with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will be held in Geneva on Thursday, a day before it was originally planned.

The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground in Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 4,959 people have died in Syria in the three-week period since January 22, when the first round of talks began in Switzerland.

The group, which documents the fighting on the ground through a wide network of activists, says the period has seen the highest death toll since the uprising against Bashar Assad started in March 2011. In a statement, it called for suspending the talks in Geneva if they do not produce an immediate cessation of all military operations.

Troops on Wednesday pounded Yabroud - the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region. Backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive there since early December.

Activists reported heavy fighting in the area between troops loyal to Assad and rebels trying to overthrow him. The Observatory said warplanes have carried out 10 airstrikes so far on Wednesday.

In Lebanon, preparations were under way to receive more Syrians fleeing the area.

An Associated Press reporter in the border town of Arsal saw several trucks and buses packed with people, clothes and other belongings rolling into Lebanon.

A senior official with the town's administration told AP that up to 300 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon over the past 48 hours.

Yabroud has been controlled by the opposition for much of Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict. Lebanese Sunni Muslims have moved through the town to join Syrian rebels in battles against Assad's forces, bringing in weapons and supplies for opposition fighters from across the border in Arsal.

Hezbollah fighters have been key to the Syrian army's success in the border region.

In June, the Iran-backed group helped Assad's forces regain control of the town of Qusair. Its fall tipped the balance of power in the Syrian conflict in Assad's favour, though Hezbollah's public involvement in the civil war next door deepened sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

In Geneva, the opposition urged Russia, a key ally of Assad, to take a more forceful stand with the Syrian government. Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs Gennady Gatilov met Mr Brahimi on Wednesday morning, before Mr Brahimi brought the Syrian sides together for another unfruitful session.

"I do hope that the Russians will put enough pressure on the regime delegation to be flexible," said Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition negotiating team.

Louay Safi, another opposition figure, called on Russia to "respect the Syrian people".

A trilateral meeting involving Gatilov, US undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman and Mr Brahimi is scheduled to be held in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the deadlock. The meeting was brought forward by one day although no explanation was given.

Lebanon's Mayadeen TV and Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV said the Syrian army has started "a wide-scale military operation in Yabroud". In the early afternoon, Assad's troops took control of the village of Jarajir and surrounding hills on the Syrian side of the border, Syria's state-run news agency said.

In Syria, more civilians were expected to leave the embattled city of Homs before an extended ceasefire expires at midnight on Wednesday, Syrian Red Crescent said in a statement.

The aid organisation has been part of the relief effort in Homs since Friday, when the UN-brokered humanitarian truce went into effect. Its statement said the staff entered the city earlier on Wednesday to deliver 190 food parcels and 190 bags of flour.

Press Association

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