Kerry demands Russia rein in Syrian forces

At least 210 combatants killed in fighting between army troops and militants this week in Syria’s second city of Aleppo

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US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday to demand that Moscow press its Syrian allies to respect a crumbling ceasefire.

“Secretary Kerry said the United States expected Russia to urge the regime to comply with the cessation and that we would work with the opposition to do the same,” US spokesman John Kirby said.

Kerry’s call came as a new round of fierce fighting around the northern city of Aleppo overshadowed peace talks aimed at ending Syria's five-year-old civil war.

According to Kirby, Kerry told Lavrov of Washington’s “serious concerns over the ongoing threats to the cessation of hostilities in Syria and the urgent need for the Assad regime to stop its violations of the cessation.”

US officials have complained that Russian jets appear to be flying in support of Syrian forces attacking rebel positions in Aleppo, despite having signed on to efforts to promote a political settlement.

A monitoring group said on Friday that at least 210 combatants in Syria’s civil war have died in a surge in violence around the second city of Aleppo this week, a monitoring group.

Among those killed were 82 army troops and pro-regime militiamen, 94 members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and allied rebel groups, and 34 ISIS militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

On Friday, Syrian regime forces battled ISIS group militants near Aleppo city as they clashed with a local Al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels nearby, a monitoring group said.

The upsurge in fighting, which the United States says is straining a fragile truce, came as a new round of peace talks got under way in Geneva.

“Fierce fighting raged between regime troops and loyalist militia against ISIS... to the east of Khanasser” southeast of Aleppo city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The army is trying to recapture several areas seized by ISIS on Thursday near Khanasser, the Britain-based monitor said.

Meanwhile, troops and militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime battled Al-Nusra Front and allied rebels on a northern front in the battered province, the group said.

At least 14 troops and pro-regime militiamen as well as 20 rebels and Al-Nusra militants have been killed in the past 24 hours around the flashpoint area of Handarat north of Aleppo city, it said.

The latest violence came a day after a senior official in Washington told AFP that the United States was “very concerned” about reports of a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive near Aleppo.

Even though the fight against ISIS and Al-Nusra is excluded from the truce, violence around Aleppo has sparked concerns that the ceasefire may not last, partly because rebels are involved in the battles there too.

“Aleppo is the key to war and peace in Syria,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“Every side in the war has a stake in Aleppo.”

Syria’s conflict began in 2011 as a peaceful revolt, with protests across the country that spread in 2012 to Aleppo province, which borders Turkey.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the Syria crisis settlement in a phone talk on Friday, Russia’s ministry said in a statement.

Lavrov and Kerry also discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine conflicts, it added.

On Friday, a Syrian government delegation arrived in Geneva to join a new round of UN-mediated peace talks underway with an umbrella opposition group that seeks to find a resolution to the country’s five-year civil war.

(With Reuters)

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