ISIS overruns part of Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor city

Russia also accused the Syrian opposition of employing blackmail by suspending its participation in peace talks in Geneva

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ISIS has tightened the noose on a regime-held enclave in eastern Syria, overrunning part of the city of Deir Ezzor and advancing on its vital airbase, a monitor said Wednesday.

“ISIS seized the Al-Sinaa neighborhood of Deir Ezzor on Tuesday evening and fighting is continuing on the edge of the airport,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

An estimated 200,000 civilians are believed to remain in government-held districts of Deir Ezzor, where they have been living under siege by ISIS since March 2014.

The militants, who also control nearly all the surrounding province, have made repeated attacks on the government enclave and in January seized the suburb of Al-Bgheliyeh.

But their efforts to capture the city’s airbase have so far been repulsed by elite regime troops.

There has been growing concern for the besieged civilian population and, in January, Russia announced that it had equipped Syrian military transport aircraft to carry out aid drops to the city.

On April 10, the World Food Program said it had carried out its first ever successful high-altitude airdrop, to deliver 20 tons of food aid to government-held neighborhoods.

A previous attempt by the UN agency to drop aid to Deir Ezzor failed in February, when some of the pallets missed the drop zone and others were damaged due to their parachutes failing to function properly.

The UN has carried out three successful air drops so far but has only reached a small fraction of the population.
Elsewhere in Syria, government air raids on a rebel-held district of the battleground northern city of Aleppo killed seven people, the Observatory said.

The strikes on the eastern neighborhood of Salaheddin were the latest salvo in a flareup of violence in and around Aleppo that has tested a Russian- and US-brokered ceasefire that went into force in late February.

Opposition delegates walked out of peace talks in Geneva on Tuesday in protest at what they said was an escalation of violence by the regime.

Later on Tuesday, suspected regime air strikes on two Al-Qaeda-held towns in northwestern Syria killed at least 44 civilians in markets, the Observatory said.

Al-Qaeda, like ISIS, is not party to the February ceasefire.

Syria pushes for peace talks

Meanwhile, the Syrian government pushed on with peace negotiations in Geneva Wednesday despite the main opposition’s withdrawal, presenting its vision for a new unity government, including dissidents considered more acceptable by Damascus.

The regime’s chief representative in Geneva Bashar al-Jaafari said the current round of UN-brokered talks was continuing even though the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has suspended its formal participation in the talks.

“The UN considers the talks to be ongoing in spite of the withdrawal,” Jaafari told reporters following a meeting with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura’s deputy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy.

“No faction has a veto power over confiscating the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva,” said Jaafari, who was set to meet de Mistura on Thursday.

The HNC -- an umbrella group comprising the main Syrian opposition and rebel factions that came together in Riyadh in December -- announced Monday it was putting its participation on hold to protest escalating violence and restrictions on humanitarian access in Syria.

Jaafari criticized the announcement as “absurd theatre,” and accused HNC coordinator Riad Hijab of being “politically immature.”

“If they leave the talks, the talks will not lose anything,” he said, insisting that the HNC “do not represent the Syrian people. Quite the contrary.”

“By leaving they may be taking away a major obstacle and that will allow us to reach a solution,” said Jaafari, who spoke through a translator.

The troubled Geneva talks are aimed at ending Syria’s five-year war by achieving political transition, a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections by September 2017.

But the fate of President Bashar al-Assad remains a major sticking point, with the HNC insisting any peace deal must include his departure, while Damascus insists his future is non-negotiable.

Jaafari on Wednesday said his delegation had laid out its views on what a “broad-based unity government” should look like, insisting it must “comprise representatives of our current government (and) representatives from the opposition, ... technocrats and independent figures.”

But he added that only opposition members “who reject terrorism (and) who do not work for the sake of a foreign agenda” would be permitted to join.

Russia accuses Syrian opposition

Russia on Wednesday also accused the opposition of employing blackmail by suspending its participation in peace talks in Geneva.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the tactics deployed by the HNC showed it was not capable of reaching a deal and could not be the sole representative for the opposition at the talks.

The statement described as groundless opposition allegations that forces loyal to Assad were violating an agreement on a cessation of hostilities and on granting access for humanitarian supplies.

In a related story, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow’s military support has helped prevent the disintegration of Syria.

Assisted by Russia’s air force, Syrian government troops have liberated more than 400 settlements, Putin said, receiving credentials from foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin.

(With AFP, Reuters)

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