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Sunday, April 24, 2016, 12:49

At least 31 killed as violence spikes in Syria

By Associated Press
At least 31 killed as violence spikes in Syria
In this April 22, 2016 photo the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to the media during a press conference after a round of negotiations, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Martial Trezzini / Keystone via AP)

BEIRUT — Syrian government strikes hit opposition-held areas near the capital and in the country's largest city, Aleppo, while rebels fired mortars in escalating violence that left at least 31 people killed and shattered a relative quiet in Damascus that has held since the teetering cease-fire took effect in late February.

Western officials, including the UN envoy leading negotiations with Syria's warring factions, have warned that a cease-fire was in danger of total collapse due to escalating violence and the walk-out by the Saudi-backed opposition group from the talks Monday. The opposition accuses the government of wrecking the talks with ongoing attacks while the government says it is only targeting terrorist groups who are not part of the cease-fire agreement.

The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said the talks will continue until Wednesday as planned, but said the two sides are "extremely polarized," casting doubt on the ability to salvage the talks aimed at finding a political solution to the five-year conflict.

The violence on Saturday appeared set to only harden the opposition's position. Anas al-Abda, the leader of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition represented in the Geneva talks, lamented the international community's "limpness" in responding to what he called "massacres" against civilians, in response to the Aleppo violence.

For the second straight day Saturday, government airplanes pounded neighborhoods in Aleppo held by the opposition, in what activists described as the most intense campaign of airstrikes since the cease-fire.

The Saturday airstrikes in rebel-held areas in Aleppo killed at least 12 people, including children, when they targeted a residential area and market in the Tareeq al-Bab district in the contested city, the activist-run Aleppo Media Center said. Images of the destruction posted on the AMC Facebook page and other sites showed destroyed buildings and rescue teams removing civilians from under rubble and the upper floors of destroyed buildings, including terrified women and children.

A day earlier, at least 18 people were killed in airstrikes on several rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo. Government forces have boxed-in opposition held areas from all sides except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city. Opposition groups have said reports of a new government offensive on their stronghold in the city would wreck the peace talks.

The al-Qaida branch in Syria, Nusra Front, and its more powerful rival, the Islamic State group, are not part of a cease-fire. The Nusra Front is deeply rooted in the areas in northern Syria controlled by opposition forces, complicating the oversight of the truce.

Syria's Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi told Syrian Satellite TV that "terrorist" attacks in the city left six people dead and 25 injured. The pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV said the Nusra Front and other groups shelled four government areas in the city.

Near the capital, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition activist-run Syrian Press Center said government shelling of rebel strongholds in Douma, in eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, on Saturday killed at least 13 people, including three women and two children.

And mortar shells returned to the capital— which has seen a relatively calm period during the cease-fire despite violence elsewhere.

Syria's Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said mortar shells fired by rebels fell in two neighborhoods in Damascus, including one several hundred meters from the Russian embassy. There were no reported injuries.

State-news agency SANA said a child was killed in a rebel shelling outside Damascus.

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