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Syrian rebels reject proposed peace talks from Russia

Russia's proposed peace talks for Syria have been rejected by Syrian rebels and opposition groups.

They accused Moscow of failing to pressure its ally, Syrian president Bashar Assad, to end the conflict.

Forty rebel groups said the talks expected next month are an attempt to circumvent the UN-led process, which has made virtually no progress since it began in 2014.

The groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, Army of Islam, and western and regionally backed Free Syrian Army groups, said Moscow asked them to give up their demand for Mr Assad to step down.

But they rejected the call, calling Russia "an aggressor that has committed war crimes against Syrians".

They said they are committed to the UN-led Geneva process, and urged the international community to end the bloodshed, now in its seventh year.

Russia's proposed talks were also rejected by political opposition groups and governing bodies in rebel-held areas.

Syria's government said it would attend the talks, set for January 29-30 in Sochi. They were announced after talks among Russia and Iran, which back the government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.

The fate of Mr Assad, who has said the Sochi talks have a clear agenda of discussing new elections and possibly amending the constitution, has been the main point of contention in all previous rounds of talks.

The opposition has long called for a transitional period in which Mr Assad would have no role, something the government refuses to consider.

It is not yet clear who will attend the Sochi talks, with Turkey having said the Syrian Kurdish group known as the PYD, which governs around 25% of Syria's territory and wants autonomous rule, should not be invited.

Russia said last week that Kurdish representatives would attend but that it would not invite the PYD.

The self-administration of north-eastern Syria, where the PYD is dominant, said the authority and not individual parties should be represented at the talks.

The PYD is the major political arm of the US-allied Kurdish militias that played a major role in defeating Islamic State.

Ankara views the group as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its south-east.

Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began in September 2015, helped turn the tide of the civil war in favour of Mr Assad.

Localised ceasefire agreements brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey reduced the violence across much of Syria, but the government has kept up pressure on insurgents on the outskirts of Damascus and in the north-western rebel-held Idlib province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people have been killed since Monday in air strikes in southern Idlib.

The Observatory and the Syrian Civil Defence said in the past 24 hours that government aircraft dropped dozens of barrel bombs in the area.

The Observatory and rebel groups said a Syrian trainer jet was shot down on Tuesday in eastern Hama, south of Idlib.

Rebel groups issued competing claims of having downed the plane. The Observatory said the plane was shot down near Um Harytan, in north-eastern Hama.


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