Syrian govt officials sit for fresh talks with rebels
Syrian government officials sat face-to-face with rebels for the second time in three weeks in Kazakhstan on Thursday, as diplomats stepped up efforts to lay the groundwork for U.N.-brokered peace talks next week.

A leader of the Russian delegation to the talks in Astana, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, said an agreement has been reached to form a permanent contact group of the three nations to 'preserve and strengthen" a cease-fire that has technically been in place since Dec. 30.

The meeting is intended to pave the way for the revival of broader, U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva next week, but huge challenges remain as both sides criticized each other and continued to spar about the agenda for the talks.

The Syrian government's envoy to the talks accused Turkey, one of the sponsors, of continuing to support "terrorist" groups and urged Ankara to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's U.N. ambassador, said at a press conference that Turkey "cannot be fanning the flames and be extinguishing them at the same time."

He accused Turkey of continuing to facilitate the entry of "tens of thousands of mercenaries" to Syria, and said the meeting ended without a final statement because of the late arrival of the Turkish delegation and the Syrian opposition delegates.

Turkish troops have been helping Syrian opposition forces battle the Islamic State group around the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, near the Turkish border, since August.

Al-Ja'afari also criticized Jordan, Syria's southern neighbor, accusing it of sponsoring rebel factions that have been clashing with government forces in the southern city of Daraa for the past few days.

"There is an attack by eight factions on Daraa since four days and they... have unleashed thousands of shells at innocent civilians" in the area, he said.

In Geneva, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland called on parties to allow aid convoys to reach besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria to demonstrate "goodwill" before the talks in Geneva on Feb. 23.

Egeland lamented that not a single U.N.-arranged land convoy has reached any of more than a dozen besieged towns or villages this year, citing a lack of approvals from authorities.

He said relief convoys were lining up Thursday in hopes of delivering aid to the opposition-held enclave of al-Waer in Homs, Syria's third-largest city.

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was meanwhile meeting with top Russian officials in Moscow in the run-up to the anticipated talks.

The meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, includes representatives from the government and armed rebel groups, and is aimed at reinforcing a cease-fire that has been violated on a daily basis. The Geneva talks will include the exiled civilian opposition and will have as their goal a broader political settlement to the nearly six-year conflict.

The Daraa clashes have continued despite the stepped up diplomatic efforts. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says an al-Qaida-linked faction attacked government forces Sunday, shattering an extended spell of calm in the contested region.

The opposition-run monitoring group says government forces have responded with a relentless barrage of artillery and airstrikes, destroying at least one field hospital in the contested provincial capital.

Issam al-Rais, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army's Southern Front, said mainstream rebel factions were also taking part in the fighting, in response to persistent government violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire.

"If the regime disciplines itself, then we are committed to the cease-fire," al-Rais told the AP.

Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces meanwhile pounded the northern Syrian town of al-Bab as pro-government forces attacked the nearby village of Tadef. Both sides are trying to expel the Islamic State group from the region and claim it for themselves.

The two sides are about 5 kilometers (3 miles) apart.

The Observatory said 24 civilians have been killed under Turkish and Syrian opposition fire in al-Bab in the past 24 hours. The figure could not be independently confirmed.
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