US, Russia to meet on Syria truce violations ahead of Geneva talks
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US, Russia to meet on Syria truce violations ahead of Geneva talks

In Saudi Arabia, Kerry says ‘perceived’ breaches of Feb. 27 truce should not derail UN-mediated peace negotiations

Illustrative:  (L-R) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of States John Kerry and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura follow a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016.  (AFP/Christof Stache)
Illustrative: (L-R) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of States John Kerry and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura follow a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016. (AFP/Christof Stache)

KING KHALID MILITARY CITY, Saudi Arabia — US and Russian officials were to meet Saturday on Syrian opposition charges of truce violations by the regime but peace talks remain on course, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Asked at the end of a visit to Saudi Arabia whether indirect dialogue in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition could go ahead as planned on Monday, Kerry said: “Yes, it can.”

“Our teams are meeting today with Russia in both Geneva and Amman, where very detailed lay downs will take place regarding these allegations and I am requesting a call with Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov today and we will work through these and we have been each day,” he said of the opposition complaints.

Air raids by the Syrian regime killed seven civilians in rebel-held areas of second city Aleppo on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based monitoring group termed the strikes as “the most serious violation in the city since the truce came into effect.”

Syrian rescue workers and residents try to pull a man out from under the rubble of a building following a reported air strike on the rebel-held neighborhood of Salhin in the northern city of Aleppo on March 11, 2016. (AFP/THAER MOHAMMED)
Syrian rescue workers and residents try to pull a man out from under the rubble of a building following a reported air strike on the rebel-held neighborhood of Salhin in the northern city of Aleppo on March 11, 2016. (AFP/THAER MOHAMMED)

But Kerry, who met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for talks on Syria, said that “perceived” violations of the ceasefire that went into effect on February 27 should not derail the UN-mediated peace talks.

“The level of violence by all accounts has been reduced by 80 to 90 percent, which is very, very significant. And what we want to do is continue to work to reduce these.”

On Friday, the Syrian opposition said it will attend the peace talks, stoking hopes that the war-ravaged country may be able to end five years of civil war and move towards elections in 18 months.

The two-week ceasefire has created a lull in fighting between the Russian-backed regime and non-jihadist rebels.

The UN Syria envoy called on Friday for elections in the war-ravaged country to be held by the middle of 2017.

The US State Department said the truce “has produced a dramatic reduction in violence” although it warned the regime was still carrying out attacks.

“Despite the reduction in violence nationwide, we remain deeply concerned by continued specific violations to the cessation of hostilities, including attacks on civilians and opposition forces by the regime and its supporters,” spokesman John Kirby said.

The Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee, the main Syrian opposition grouping, agreed on Friday to attend the talks.

The HNC said it would focus on creating a “transitional governance body with full executive powers”, while insisting President Bashar Assad “will have no place” in a future government.

A plan agreed by world powers last year called for six months of negotiations followed by a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.

Assad’s regime announced last month that it would hold parliamentary elections on April 13 instead, drawing criticism.

A source close to Syria’s government told AFP this week its delegation would be attending the Geneva talks.

‘Substantive’ talks

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said the Geneva talks would be “substantive” and last no longer than 10 days.

“New elections… should be held 18 months from the start of talks, that is from March 14,” de Mistura told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency.

In addition to planning the polls, the focus in Geneva will be on the formation of “an inclusive new government” and a new constitution, said the envoy.

Protesters shout slogans during an anti-regime demonstration in the rebel-controlled Sukkari neighborhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on March 11, 2016 (AFP / KARAM AL-MASRI)
Protesters shout slogans during an anti-regime demonstration in the rebel-controlled Sukkari neighborhood of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo on March 11, 2016 (AFP / KARAM AL-MASRI)

The complex war, which is to enter its sixth year next week, has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced half the Syrian population.

Russia on Friday urged the UN to include the Kurds, who have been a major force in fighting jihadists such as the Islamic State group.

Excluding them would be “a most serious infringement of the rights of a large and significant group living in Syria,” Foreign Minister Lavrov said.

The last round of UN-sponsored talks collapsed in February after the government began a fierce Russian-backed offensive around second city Aleppo.

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