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Russia-sponsored Syrian peace conference begins – without key opposition groups

Key Syrian opposition and rebels groups have boycotted the gathering in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russia’s foreign minister has opened a Moscow-sponsored peace conference for Syria, saying that time is ripe to end the “painful” conflict in the war-torn Arab country.

However, key Syrian opposition and rebels groups have boycotted the gathering, which Moscow described as an effort to speed up a political settlement for Syria.

Sergey Lavrov’s comments were also in sharp contrast with the violence on the ground in Syria, where opposition activists reported more air strikes on the rebel-held province of Idlib.

Also, Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters have marched deeper into a Kurdish enclave in the country’s north.

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Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters of the Free Syrian Army are driven towards the border with Syria (AP)

The Russia-sponsored conference opened in the Black Sea resort of Sochi after a two-hour delay, after some members of rebel groups returned to the airport in protest.

Russia, a key ally of Syrian president Bashar Assad, said it invited 1,600 representatives to the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue, but so far only the government and opposition representatives tolerated by Damascus have shown up. The main Syrian opposition body has boycotted the talks.

Sharp disagreements between those attending the conference were clear, with some interrupting Mr Lavrov’s speech by chanting pro and anti-Russian slogans, forcing him to say: “Please allow me to continue my speech.”

He added: “We can confidently say that all the suitable circumstances to end the painful page in the history of the Syrian people are present.

“There is a dire need for a comprehensive Syrian dialogue for the sake of a comprehensive deal for the Syrian crisis.”

Mr Lavrov said that Moscow has worked to have this conference represent more Syrians, adding that “only the Syrian people have the right to determine their future”.

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Turkey launched a military offensive against Afrin on January 20 (AP)

Syrian government official Ghassan al-Qalaa told the gathering: “I call you upon in the name of millions of Syrians to have mercy upon our country.”

Earlier, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Artyom Kozhin confirmed earlier reports of some members of the rebel groups returning to the airport in protest.

Last week, UN-sponsored talks in Vienna, Austria, ended as in many previous rounds with accusations hurled back and forth to the media between the representatives of the warring sides in Syria.

Opposition figures have said Russia is trying to undermine the UN-led peace talks. However, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was expected to take part in the Sochi conference, though he had not shown up in the conference room as the gathering started.

The Sochi gathering has also been overshadowed by reports of intense clashes that erupted on a strategic hilltop in north-western Syria as Kurdish forces tried to enter the area a day after it was captured by Turkish troops.

The main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is fighting in Afrin and controls some 25% of Syrian territory, has also declined to attend the conference in Sochi, saying it holds Russia responsible for the Turkish offensive.

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