Joint session on Syria to go ahead in Astana after a day’s delay

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Kazakhstan said a new round of talks on the Syria conflict backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran and endorsed by the United Nations were going ahead Thursday after a day’s delay.

A plenary session involving all three power-brokers and delegations from the Syrian government and opposition is scheduled to begin at 1600 local time (0900 GMT), a Kazakh foreign ministry official said at a press briefing in Astana on Thursday. On Wednesday Kazakhstan said talks initially slated for February 15 had been moved to February 16 for unspecified “technical reasons”.

Bilateral consultations ahead of the plenary session are reported to have been underway since Wednesday, as parties seek an end to the conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011. Rebel spokesman Yehya al-Aridi told AFP Wednesday the opposition was participating, but as a “smaller” delegation than the one it sent for the talks in Astana last month, when it refused to negotiate directly with Damascus.

The rebels, who initially cast doubt over their participation in the latest meeting will be led by Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), he confirmed.

Also read: Syrian opposition to boycott Astana over Russian ‘breaches’

The Syrian regime is represented in Astana by its ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari. He told Russian agency Ria Novosti on Wednesday that one-on-one meetings between the opposition and the government were “not planned”.

The first set of talks on Syria that took place in the Central Asian country’s capital in January did not result in any significant breakthrough. The latest round of discussions will focus mostly on bolstering a faltering six-week truce with negotiations over any political settlement expected to wait for February 23 talks in Geneva.

Russia has sent presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev to the event while Iran dispatched deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari. UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said he would not participate personally in the latest Astana meeting but that his office would be represented by a “technical team”.

Russia and Iran have helped turn the tables on the ground in the war-torn country with their military backing for strongman Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has supported rebels fighting to oust the strongman.

Meanwhile, Turkish bombardment of an ISIS group-held town in Syria has killed 24 civilians, a monitor said Thursday, but Turkey’s army said the operation had only killed “terrorists.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead in air strikes and shelling on the town of Al-Bab in the last 24 hours included 11 children. Turkey’s army, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency said it had killed 15 “terrorists” in air strikes, artillery fire and clashes.

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