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Thursday, February 4, 2016, 11:50

Syria peace talks hit 'temporary pause'

By Associated Press
Syria peace talks hit 'temporary pause'

GENEVA - The peace talks in the Syrian civil war are taking a break. The fighting is not.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced Wednesday there would be a "temporary pause" in the indirect peace talks between the government and opposition, saying the process will resume Feb 25.

In a statement later in the day, de Mistura's office said the talks would take a "recess" by the end of Friday and would resume "no later than 25 February, and possibly much earlier."

The delay reflects the rocky start of the talks Monday in which neither the government nor the opposition even acknowledged that the negotiations had officially begun.

"It is not the end, and it is not the failure of the talks," de Mistura told reporters after a meeting with opposition leaders.

Both sides remain "interested in having the political process started," he added.

The conflict that began in March 2011 has killed at least 250,000 people, displaced 11 million and given an opening for the Islamic State group to seize large parts of the country from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

"I'm not frustrated I'm not disappointed," de Mistura said of the pause. "When you have a five year war and had so many difficult moments you have to be determined, but also realistic."

The last round of talks broke down in 2014.

The Saudi-backed opposition, known as the High Negotiations Committee, had been reluctant to come to the talks, saying the government should first end the bombardment of civilians, allow aid into besieged rebel-held areas, and release thousands of detainees.

On Wednesday, delegation head Riad Hajib said the Assad government had not met those demands.

"The HNC delegation will leave tomorrow and will not return (to Geneva) until we see positive steps on humanitarian issues," he said.

Syria peace talks hit 'temporary pause'

Syria's High Negotiations Committee, HNC, spokesman Salem al-Mislet, right, speaks to the media during a press briefing during Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb 2, 2016. (Photo / Salvatore Di Nolfi, Keystone via AP)

The head of the Syrian delegation, Bashar Ja'afari, said the opposition "had orders from its masters to ruin the talks."

On Wednesday, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, blasted their way into two Shiite villages in the north, breaking a long-running rebel siege, Syrian TV reported.

The villages of Nubul and Zahra are located in the middle of opposition territory and have been blockaded by rebel groups for about three years, with the army occasionally dropping food and other aid to those inside.

Reaching them marked a major victory for government forces, which have made significant advances in Aleppo province in recent days. The Syrian troops severed a key supply route linking the rebels in the city of Aleppo to the Turkish border.

If the pro-government offensive succeeds, it will be one of the biggest blows to the insurgents since they captured large parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, in the summer of 2012.

The offensive has led the opposition to accuse Damascus of negotiating in bad faith.

The two delegations were not meeting face to face but were in separate rooms, with de Mistura shuttling between them in the so-called "proximity talks." He had scheduled the talks to last six months.

Syria peace talks hit 'temporary pause'

Syria's High Negotiations Committee, HNC, spokesman Salem al-Mislet kisses pictures of the Syrian victims of the war displayed in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb 2, 2016, where Syria peace talks continue. (Photo / Salvatore Di Nolfi, Keystone via AP)

De Mistura said he will ask the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support group of about 20 regional and world powers to address some of the pending issues in the talks, including what can be done "to make a difference for the Syrian people."

He said both sides had expressed concerns about the talks, with the government wanting to address "procedural issues before talking about (the) humanitarian side."

Western powers expressed support for de Mistura and sharply criticized Assad and Russia.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France condemns the "brutal offensive by the Syrian regime with Russia's support to encircle and asphyxiate Aleppo and its hundreds of thousands of residents."

In a statement, Fabius said France backs de Mistura's move to suspend the talks under such circumstances, saying Assad's regime and its supporters "visibly don't want to contribute to them in good faith, thus torpedoing peace efforts."

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement released late Wednesday that attacks by Syrian forces supported by by Russian airstrikes against opposition-held areas have signaled that Syria intends to seek a military solution rather than a political one.

"We call upon the regime and its supporters to halt their bombardment of opposition-held areas, especially in Aleppo, and to lift their besiegement of civilians," he said.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Russia had voted for the UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for the talks, noting the measure called on Syria's "regime and all parties to cease bombings and other attacks on civilians — not eventually, but immediately. Not soon, but now."

"It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored," Kirby said, noting that de Mistura "paused the talks in Geneva in part because of the difficulty of seeking political solutions while humanitarian aid is continually disrupted and innocent lives are taken."

Syria peace talks hit 'temporary pause'

Flags hang in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations during a round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb 2, 2016. Russia said Tuesday it supports the inclusion of all opposition parties in Syrian peace talks, including two hard-line Islamic groups, as President Bashar Assad’s troops captured a village north of Syria’s largest city with the aid of Russian air strikes. (Photo / Laurent Gillieron, Keystone via AP)

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