The Latest: Russia says no plans to capture Aleppo
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the conflict in Syria as a new round of peace talks begins in Geneva (all times local):
Russia says its warplanes are helping the Syrian army fight the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front around Aleppo, adding that there is no plan to capture the city.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday that Syrian troops’ attacks on the Nusra Front are necessary to prevent the militants from blocking civilian areas. It emphasized that “there is no plan for storming Aleppo.”
The U.S. and Russia-backed truce that began on Feb. 27 has helped reduce hostilities in some parts of Syria, but fighting has continued around Aleppo where the Nusra Front has strong positions. The Nusra Front and the Islamic State group have been excluded from the truce.
The ministry said Moscow expects Washington to continue coordinating the cease-fire’s enforcement and strongly warned the U.S. against supplying any weapons to the rebels.
A Syrian government envoy says he had “constructive and fruitful” discussions with a U.N. mediator in the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja’afari spoke briefly to reporters Friday after his delegation provided proposed “amendments” to a working paper laid out by U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura as the talks took a break last month.
De Mistura on Wednesday re-convened parties to the indirect peace talks between the government and the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, aimed to try to bring an end to Syria’s five-year war that has left over 250,000 dead and driven millions from their homes.
Ja’afari said de Mistura’s team would examine the government’s proposed changes to a list of fundamental principles for the talks before meeting again Monday.
Commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army say government forces are preparing an offensive on the northern city of Aleppo, and opposition fighters are waiting to see if world powers can keep a tenuous cease-fire afloat before deciding whether to continue supporting peace talks.
FSA commanders spoke to reporters Friday in Geneva against the backdrop of indirect peace talks at nearby U.N. offices between opposition representatives and a government delegation.
Abu Ossama Al-Jolani accused President Bashar Assad’s government of trying to “destroy” the truce brokered by Russia and the U.S. He said FSA fighters who now support the talks are waiting for “those who decided that this truce should start” to determine whether it’s holding.
Another commander, Iyad Shamsi, said government forces and their Iranian backers were preparing a “big offensive” on Aleppo.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations and a government delegation have arrived at the U.N’s Geneva offices in their return to indirect peace talks with the opposition amid new fighting in Syria.
Bashar Ja’afari and his entourage were meeting with U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura Friday for the first time since the so-called “proximity talks” — in which the delegations meet separately with de Mistura — suspended for a break last month. The opposition High Negotiations Committee met with de Mistura on Wednesday and was to see him again later Friday.
While a cease-fire between government forces and rebel fighters has largely held, the talks have largely been overshadowed by renewed combat near Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
The talks are seen by many as the best chance yet to end the five-year war.
An international medical relief organization says it is “extremely worried” about the security of people fleeing fighting in northern Syria and about their access to health care.
Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as MSF or Doctors Without Borders, says it knows of just five operating hospitals in the Azaz district, where Syrians who have already been displaced by conflict are now fleeing renewed fighting between Syrian rebels and the Islamic State group.
Muskilda Zancada, head of the MSF mission in Syria, says the situation on the ground “remains very unpredictable.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that an Islamic State advance in the area sent around 30,000 displaced persons fleeing from their camps. The group said some headed to the Turkish border but were refused entry.
Syrian state media says a government delegation has arrived to join the new round of U.N.-mediated peace talks with an umbrella opposition group that began this week in Geneva.
The arrival of the Damascus team, led by Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, comes amid an escalation in northern Aleppo province that has left 34 dead on both sides. The renewed fighting has undermined the fragility of the cease-fire that has largely held elsewhere in Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that of those killed in the past 24 hours in the clashes, 14 were pro-government fighters and 20 were militants.
U.N. Special Envoy Steffan De Mistura has said he hopes this round will have substantive talks on a peace process to resolve the country’s five-year civil war.