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Syria peace talks halted as the fighting continues

Published 04/02/2016

Staffan de Mistura said it was not the end of the talks, and they had not failed (AP)
Staffan de Mistura said it was not the end of the talks, and they had not failed (AP)

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

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

His office said the Geneva 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 on 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," Mr de Mistura told reporters after a meeting with opposition leaders.

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.

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.

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

He said: "Yes, there is a failure. It is a failure of everybody except the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.

"Those who have the responsibility of this failure are the Saudis, the Turks and the Qataris. They are the real handlers and the masters of the Riyadh group."

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 Mr de Mistura shuttling between them in the so-called "proximity talks".

He had scheduled the talks to last six months.

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