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Tue Sep 27 15:49:58 SAST 2016

Syrian pro-government forces retake key town in west ahead of planned talks

Reuters | 24 January, 2016 15:28
A Syrian national flag flutters near residents who said they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town as they wait with their belongings after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria
A Syrian national flag flutters near residents who said they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town as they wait with their belongings after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, January 14, 2016.
Image by: OMAR SANADIKI / REUTERS

Syrian pro-government forces recaptured a key rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province on Sunday, building on battlefield advances in the area just a day ahead of planned peace talks in Geneva between Damascus and Syria's opposition.

Government troops and militiamen, supported by Moscow's air power and joined on the ground by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces, have pressed offensives in the west and northwest of the country in recent months, seeking to reverse gains made by insurgents last year.

The latest advance comes just ahead of scheduled talks which increasingly look set to stall, partly because of a dispute over the opposition negotiating team's composition and opposition demands that Russia stop bombing civilian areas and Damascus lift sieges before they will come to the table.

The recapture of the town of Rabiya in Latakia province paved the way for an advance up to the border with Turkey, which supports insurgents fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian state television confirmed Rabiya's capture.

The Observatory described Rabiya as the "second most important base for (rebel) fighters in the northern Latakia countryside" after the town of Salma, which pro-government forces seized earlier this month in one of the most significant advances since Russia joined the fight.

TALKS DEADLINE APPROACHING

Damascus's gains come ahead of peace talks set to begin on Monday in Geneva. The United States says it is confident they will go ahead during the week.

There is risk of delay, however, partly because of a dispute over who will comprise the opposition delegation. Russia demands the inclusion of representatives who could be deemed closer to its own thinking, which is rejected by the opposition.

The opposition demands a halt to Russian bombing of civilian areas and for sieges to be lifted before it will come to the table even for indirect talks.

A Western diplomat said talks would be unlikely to begin before Wednesday, with the opposition negotiating team formed after a conference in Saudi Arabia last month taking stock in Riyadh until Tuesday.

Negotiating team members could not be immediately reached for comment.

Hadi al-Bahra, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, said on Twitter that the "issue of negotiations has not been determined yet".

The United Nations has said it would not issue invitations to talks until major powers reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura had been expected to issue invitations on Sunday.

Syrian armed rebel groups said on Saturday they held the Syrian government and Russia responsible for any failure of talks.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.

Washington is waging an air campaign against the jihadists in areas they control in northern and eastern Syria.

Russia is separately striking Islamic State, including in Deir al-Zor province, where the Syrian Observatory said on Sunday raids believed to be carried out by Russian jets killed 63 people.

The conflict, which broke out after an uprising in 2011, has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced a further 11 million.

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