UN official says Syria peace talks to begin within days
GENEVA – The Associated Press
REUTERS PhotoThe U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will begin holding “substantive” peace talks with both Syria’s government officials and opposition representatives no later than March 14, a spokeswoman for the envoy said on March 8.
The resumption of Syria peace talks has been expected ever since a U.S.-Russia-engineered cease-fire, which went into effect on Feb. 27, sharply reduced the bloodshed in the five-year war. The truce - though limited and tentative - has mostly held, even as sporadic fire has continued.
De Mistura is still planning for the talks to officially start on March 10, but logistics and other issues have meant that delegations are likely to arrive in Geneva over several days, spokeswoman Jessy Chahine said.
Opposition leaders have set conditions before they agree to rejoin the planned talks, and it is not yet certain whether they would indeed attend.
Mistura “will start substantive meetings with those who are in Geneva by latest the 14th of March,” Chahine told reporters. She said the talks would resume “in a staggered and proximity system,” meaning that they are to take place in various phases and not face-to-face, at least initially.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front, and allied jihadists seized a set of strategic hilltops held by pro-regime forces in the country’s north late March 7, a monitoring group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants battled government loyalists and overran three hilltops in the Al-Eis area south of Aleppo city.
“Fighters from al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa, and other groups seized the central Al-Eis hilltop and surrounding hills as well,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The jihadists detonated five car bombs during their offensive.
“The hilltops are important because they reinforce the regime’s presence in the outskirts of Aleppo and gave them a presence near the main highway south towards Damascus,” Abdel Rahman said.
Aleppo province is broken up into a complex patchwork of territories under the control of various groups.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is dominant in the east, while rebel groups - some allied with al-Nusra - control much of the west.